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The Nation

Avoiding Dean's Mistakes

Barack Obama's victory in the hard-fought Democratic primary for an open US Senate seat from Illinois has instantaneously made him a political star. CNN analysts were calling the civil rights lawyer-turned-legislator "the man to watch in Illinois" and "the country's hottest Senate candidate." The New York Times and The Washington Post are weighing in with glowing reports. US Senator Jon Corzine, the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is ecstatic about having a smart, articulate and politically-savvy candidate who looks to be well positioned to pick up the seat of retiring Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald. Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe was even more ecstatic about the prospect that Obama, the child of Kenyan and American parents, would give the party a fresh young African-American leader to feature at its national convention in Boston.

For backers of Howard Dean's failed presidential campaign, however, the Obama win offers something else: a bittersweet reminder of what might have been. There was a great deal about the Obama campaign that mirrored the most interesting and impressive aspects of the Dean candidacy. Obama made early and effective use of the internet and drew supporters together using Meet Ups. He built an enthusiastic network of supporters that included college students, suburban liberals and veteran progressive activists in Chicago. Like Dean, Obama was an early and outspoken critic of the Bush administration's scheming to invade Iraq, he criticized the Patriot Act and he promised to "act like a Democrat" if elected. While most of organized labor endorsed another, "safer" candidate, Obama secured the support of the Service Employees International Union, a growing union that frequently flexes its political muscles in Democratic primaries and that also backed Dean. U.S. Representatives Jesse Jackson Jr. and Jan Schakowsky, both Dean backers, campaigned hard for Obama.

So what went right for Obama, who on Tuesday won a landslide victory over a field of better-financed and at least initially better-known Democratic contenders? How did he fight his way from the back of the pack to the front of a multi-candidate field and then, unlike Dean, stay there through election day? While it is important to be remember that national and state campaigns are dramatically different, it is fair to say that Obama did three things that Dean didn't:

1.) Obama deliberately avoided peaking too soon. He started at the rear of the pack. As the candidate himself said, "I think it's fair to say that the conventional wisdom was we could not win. We didn't have enough money. We didn't have enough organization. There was no way that a skinny guy from the South Side (of Chicago) with a funny name like Barack Obama could win a statewide race." Obama and his media strategist, David Axelrod, intentionally kept expectations low. Where the Dean campaign spent a fortune in mid-2003 to win the media attention that would rocket him to frontrunner status, the Obama campaign kept its powder dry. "It was our plan to finish hard, when people were paying attention," explained Axelrod. "One of the great disciplines of the campaign was not to spend money early and waste those resources." Thus, while Obama was outspent 6-1 by one of his foes, millionaire Blair Hull, he was able to hold his own in the "air wars" at the close of the campaign."

2.) When the competition intensified, Obama kept his cool. Like U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, who won a 1992 Democratic primary after two better-known and better-financed opponents went wildly negative on one another, Obama presented himself as a calm, attractive alternative to foes whose flaws became increasingly evident at the frenzied finish of the campaign. Even as polls began to identify him as the frontrunner in late February, he campaigned as the nice-guy underdog and he kept on message. Unlike Dean, Obama gave the media few if any gaffes to highlight. In this sense, he was more like another of this year's Democratic presidential contenders, North Carolina Senator John Edwards. That's no coincidence. Obama's chief strategist, Axelrod, played a similar role with the Edwards campaign.

3.) To the very end, Obama focused on his base in Chicago's vote-rich African-American neighborhoods. Obama represents a neighborhood with a substantial African-American population in the state Senate, and he ran an unsuccessful but high-profile Democratic primary for a congressional seat in 2000. And he earned the active support of key political players in the African-American community, such as Jackson and U.S. Representative Danny Davis. Obama's other appeal was to white liberals, a point emphasized by commercials that featured testimonials from Schakowsky and the daughter of former U.S. Senator Paul Simon. Where the Dean campaign stretched itself thin trying to secure a big win early on, Obama's campaign remained focused on African-American and liberal wards where he could maximize his vote. He ended up winning as much as 90 percent of the vote in some Chicago precincts. Obama won close to 500,000 votes in Chicago's Cook County, beating his closest competitor by an almost 4-1 margin. Comparisons were made between Obama's strategy and that of the late Harold Washington, who was elected mayor of Chicago in 1983 at the head of a rainbow coalition of African-American and white liberal voters. While Danny Davis, a close ally of Washington, was cautious about the precise comparison, he did say that Obama "reenergized the base" and created "more energy than I've seen since Harold Washington."

Two other notes are worth making in aftermath of the Illinois voting:

* For Democrats, who are becoming cautiously optimistic about their prospects in the fight for control of the Senate, the Obama win is very good news. That's because he came through the primary reasonably unscathed, and because the excitement about his candidacy will make fund-raising easier in a tight year. Obama will face a tough race against millionaire Republican Jack Ryan, who will campaign as a "compassionate conservative." But if Obama continues to run smart, he's got a good chance of picking up a currently Republican Senate seat in a state that is likely to trend Democratic this fall. If Democrats gain the Illinois seat and the Colorado seat that Republican Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell is vacating, they will at least be in the fight, although they are still up against the difficult reality that five southern seats currently held by Democrats are open. The interesting new development is that polls in Pennsylvania show Republican Senator Arlen Specter is facing a tougher-than-expected challenge from conservative U.S. Representative Pat Toomey in that state's April 27 Republican primary. If Specter loses in April, the Democratic candidate, U.S. Representative Joe Hoeffel, could well win in November.

* No one paid much attention to the Illinois presidential primary, which John Kerry won with more than 72 percent of the vote and 141 delegates -- giving him more than enough delegate support to attain the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in July. The only candidate who came close to competing with Kerry in Illinois was a candidate who had withdrawn from the race: John Edwards, who took just under 11 percent of the vote and appears to have secured two delegates. Even with a maximized African-American turnout, Al Sharpton ran miserably. In the first Democratic presidential primary after Sharpton endorsed John Kerry but said he would continue his campaign in order to help shape the direction of the party, the New Yorker ran behind Kerry, Edwards and two other contenders who have folded their campaigns: former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun, who withdrew from the race two months ago, and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who withdrew last month. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, the only other candidate who says he is still in the running, finished even further behind.

History provides plenty of examples of Democratic challengers who have remained in the running for the party's presidential nomination even after it is beyond their grasp. They have done so to raise issues, to influence the direction of the party and to position themselves for future political endeavors. In some cases -- Ted Kennedy in 1980, Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, and Jerry Brown in 1992 -- the challengers have won primaries, secured delegates and achieved what, at the least, could be described as moral victories. Sharpton and Kucinich are falling far short of the mark set by those previous contenders. When a challenger who is actually campaigning runs behind candidates who have left the race, it is hard to argue that he is having any influence on the frontrunner -- let alone on the direction of the party.

One Year Later

On the heels of yesterday's car-bomb attack against a central Baghdad hotel, Iraqi insurgents launched more deadly attacks today in advance of the first anniversary of the US invasion of the country, leaving at least eight Iraqi civilians dead in several incidents and eight US soldiers wounded in a mortar attack in the restive city of Fallujah.

Meanwhile, around the world in Washington, DC, a group of antiwar activists, veterans and military family members leaned into two microphones this morning on a stage in the park across from the White House and called out the names of American soldiers who have been killed in Iraq.

This reading, part of a demonstration that was more memorial service than street protest, was one of hundreds of antiwar events scheduled across the globe leading up to Saturday's one-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.In the United States, the antiwar coalition United for Peace is calling for a massive march in New York City along with dozens of local and regional demonstrations nationwide, including a major protest in Fayetteville, NC, the home of Fort Bragg.

In Manhattan, the permitted march and rally will assemble at noon on Madison Avenue stretching north from 23rd Street. Click here for downloadable posters, leaflets and flyers, here for transportation info and here to donate to United for Peace.

San Francisco is also expecting a sizable contingent of marchers to gather near the 18th and Church St. corner of Dolores Park at 11:00am under the banner of immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, repeal of the Patriot Act and a repudiation of the preemptive doctrine of foreign policy. Click here for info on what's planned in SF.

Or check out UFP's regularly-updated calendar for info on the dozens of other rallies scheduled in places like Anchorage, Alaska; Jacksonville, Florida; Little Rock, Arkansas; Phoenix, Arizona; Honolulu, Hawaii; New Haven, Connecticut and Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio.

A coalition of groups, including UFP, is also sponsoring "National Iraq Call-in Day" next Wednesday, March 24. Encourage people to call their elected reps in Washington and politely ask them to make every effort to ensure that the June 30 transfer of power be transparent and inclusive and to make sure that any un-elected government not be allowed to make laws that will bind future representative bodies. Click here for contact info for your elected reps (if you're in the US.)

The Worst of Bush's Iraq Whoppers

For months now I have been contemplating a grand project: chronicling every misleading statement George W. Bush and his crew uttered before the war about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the supposed operational connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. I covered much of this in my book The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception. But there was only so much room I could devote to the task; I had to reserve space for Bush's untruthful remarks about tax cuts, global warming, missile defense, homeland security, the energy bill, Enron and many other topics. Sadly, I was forced to highlight only the most illustrative examples of Bush's pre- and postwar dis- and misinformation. In the months since my book was published, I have often come across various Bush administration assertions about Iraq that have made me exclaim, "Shoot, I wish I had this one earlier."

Several Democratic members of Congress, including Senators Carl Levin and Ted Kennedy, have recently assembled decent compilations. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put out a report in January that presented a good sampling of the best--or worst--of the administration's false remarks about Iraq's WMD and the al Qaeda-Iraq relationship. But the prize goes to Representative Henry Waxman.

He just released a report that identifies 237 specific misleading statements made by Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice in 125 separate public appearances. There's even an on-line database. (Click on the link above to reach the website.) Want to peruse the whoppers about Iraq's supposed biological weapons? Plug "biological weapons" into the search feature, and up pops 91 examples of Bush officials claiming there were bioweapons in Iraq. The evidence to date, of course, indicates they were wrong. And there is indisputable evidence that Bush and his underlings were mistaken not because the intelligence was off but because they exaggerated or ignored the available intelligence. One example: in an October 2002 speech, Bush said Iraq had a "massive stockpile" of biological weapons. But according to the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq, the intelligence community had not reached such a conclusion, and CIA director George Tenet said a few weeks ago that the intelligence analysts had possessed "no specific information" on bioweapons stockpiles.

What's your favorite prewar untruth from the Bush gang? When Cheney in August 2002 said there was "no doubt" that Saddam Hussein was amassing weapons of mass destruction "to use...against us"? When Bush in May 2003 said "we found the weapons of mass destruction"? (Bush was referring to two tractor-trailers discovered in northern Iraq. From the start, analysts questioned the administration's claim that these were mobile biological weapons factories. And Tenet has noted the jury is still out on the tractor-trailers. It seems more probable they were designed to produce hydrogen for weather balloons.) These unforgettable lines--at least they ought to be unforgettable--are among the Waxman's Top 237.

Is the Waxman list complete? Not entirely. Comments made by Ari Fleischer, Paul Wolfowitz and other significant administration figures are not included in the database. (Are there bandwidth limitations?) And I could not find one of my favorites: Rumsfeld on September 13, 2002, exclaiming, "There's no debate in the world as to whether they have those weapons....We all know that. A trained ape knows that." (I guess it depends on whether that trained ape was trained to misread and hype intelligence reports.) But Waxman and his staff deserve credit for rounding up and archiving many of the false and disingenuous assertions Bush and his gang used to grease the way to war.

If the commission Bush begrudgingly appointed to study the prewar intelligence on Iraq's WMDs is going to investigate whether Bush abused the intelligence, this website would be of tremendous value to it. As of now, though, it seems that the commissioners--all chosen by Bush--will duck that mission and that Waxman's site will not be on their computer browser's list of favorites. But Waxman's report practically makes it unnecessary for the commissioners to worry if Bush falsely characterized the prewar intelligence. After all, why bother bother investigating a question with such an obvious answer?

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Let's End the Duopoly: Readers Respond

My March 2 weblog, "Let's End the Duopoly," laying out proposals for democratic reforms of our electoral system generated a number of valuable reader letters. Click here to read the weblog and see below to read five good letters.

Wade Dygert, Coopersburg, PA

Katrina vanden Heuvel's "Let's End the Two-Party Duopoly" is right on the money. Electoral reform, meaning proportional representation and instant runoff voting, is the most critical issue in American politics today. Liberals should stop wasting their time demonizing Nader, and channel that energy into pushing for electoral reform. And The Nation should be leading the way.

Instead of writing cover stories telling Nader not to run, I would want to review Steven Hill's "Fixing Elections." Not only does it point out the flaws in America's electoral system, it also provides solutions. A good online resource is www.fairvote.org, the website for the Center for Voting and Democracy, in which Steven Hill is involved, by the way.

PLEASE write about proportional representation in your magazine...most people are unaware of the options we have in how we turn votes into seats, and The Nation is the perfect place to educate people on the matter.

Thank you for your time.

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Paul Klinkman, Providence, RI

Congratulations on your "duopoly" editorial. I wish that you had mentioned Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Cambridge City Council has had Proportional Representation for 63 years running. I observe that a permanently corruption-resistant city council has been a boon to Cambridge's homeowners. Cambridge has a top rating of AAA from Moody's Investor Service and outrageous property values. In similar cities with no protection from machine politics, even in cities with great colleges, homeowners often have crushing city mortgages hanging over the value of their homes which any judge can order them or their children to pay off.

I'm sorry to appeal to people's individual financial interests, but some conservatives can see nothing else. Either we stop the crooks from owning City Hall or we get cleaned out time after time, people. This same truth applies equally to our state legislatures and to Congress.

Proportional Representation disappeared from two dozen American cities because it allowed black people to become city council members, and it also allowed people who didn't hate communists enough to become city council members. Was this ever a sane reason to spit on and ignore a successful crime-fighting tool?

For generations, small groups of citizens have struggled to rid their cities, states and nation of all candidate corruption and all machine politics permanently. Proportional representation has been a successful set of government-changing experiments which our forefathers fought to implement. I'm ashamed that so many of us ignore the learning that our ancestors won with their vision and perseverance. Did some forgotton Galileo really lose this fight and die with our knowledge? Can we name any other type of learning in all of history that has been so forgotten and yet so needed?

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Sean Hill, Vancouver, Canada

In response to Katrina vanden Heuvel's recent article "Let's End the Two-Party Duopoly": I couldn't agree more that electoral reform needs to have a more prominent place on the US political platter. But Ms. vanden Heuvel's comment that "Nader's perceived role as a spoiler is likely to attract far more attention than the valuable issues he raises" is outright myth propagation. Comments like these highlight an endemic lack of belief in the validity of merit and democracy towards determining political leadership and direction.

Electoral reform begins when each of us decides to show more confidence and less apathy towards the multitude of outcomes made possible by a self-determined electorate.

In Canada, we recognize that it's not really about whether we or our political opponents win. What matters is whether the country wins, and it's the pressure generated by a range of choices which keeps our leaders in line.

Running an election strategy as "anybody but Bush" is a with us or against us proposition. The Dems are looking for the sure win but instead they're betting the bank on the next roll. You might luck out. But you're more likely to end up with some wishy-washy, opportunistic, fly-by-night who turns things upside-down and has the electorate calling for a Bush return in 2008.

Now is the time to be expanding and encouraging choices, all choices. Neither Nader, nor anybody else, right or left should be discouraged from offering themselves for the future of their country.

If we're all really that cynical then we don't deserve a better world.

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Keith Schilhab, Rollinsville CO

Re Katrina vanden Heuvel's piece on Ending the Two Party Duopoly: I read this article with much interest, as it has become increasingly clear over the last 20 years or so that our "representative" government no longer lives up to its name. Instant runoff voting, proportional representation, fusion voting are all terrific ideas and deserve a hard look.

However, in the case of politics it seems obvious to me that money is indeed the root of all electoral evils (as Ms. vanden Heuvel writes: "Big money politics give disproportionate influence to the wealthy, and blocks the candidacies of those without access to money...") Admittedly, reducing the cost of getting elected in this country will not be an easy one, and I do not have all the answers here. However, we can all agree that it is ideas and not the size of one's wallet that should count in elections.

With that in mind then I would propose either strictly re-regulating the current networks to provide free and equal time to all "qualified" candidates. Or, banning all campaign/party advertising from national TV/Radio and establishing government owned and financed radio/TV stations whose only purpose is to run equal and free political adverts. All commercial advertising in either case would be made illegal. In addition, strict money limits would be placed on a party's or campaigns fund raising. Four of five million dollars perhaps.

Yes, this idea is not complete and there are difficulties. What does it mean to be qualified? How do we re-define political speech within the context of the first amendment?

However, the stakes are far too high not to take up this question. The public is supposed to own the airwaves. They no longer serve us, and the FCC seems more like a prostitute with one customer: the broadcasters. Political speech is NOT free when the guy with the fattest wallet can dominate the conversation. Our politics has degenerated horribly within the last 20 years. I am much afraid that if something is not done, no matter how draconian it might appear at onset, then in another few years this country will be unrecognizable.

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Tracy Winter, aol.com

Good piece by Katrina Vanden Huevel. I would add to her "Toolkit" for repairing our democracy not just publicly-financed election campaigns, and a few more PBS stations, but also the banning of partisan campaign commercials from the airwaves in lieu of more inclusive and comprehensive debates, thus effectively removing the biggest (and dirtiest) money concern from the electoral process, and allowing it to become more affordale for new parties. Despite the predictable-but-innaccurate howls of protest over "free speech" that will surely ensue from the media giants, it is entirely possible within the original parameters of the media's charge to provide "Public Service" in return for the incredibly powerful use of OUR airwaves since the advent of TV. Frequent and extensive debates on the issues should satisfy anyone with a first amendment ax to grind. Why should the despicable Media Moguls who have already trashed responsible journalism, be allowed to go on enriching themselves at the expense of our Democracy?

CEOs For Universal Healthcare

As a recent Washington Post business article reported (an article that should have been on the Post's front page!), manufacturers are quietly embracing the concept of universal healthcare. While the major papers have been virtually MIA on this issue, Kirstin Downey, a Post staff writer, admirably called attention to how rising costs are roiling the debate over healthcare reform. Sen. Kerry and leading Democrats should pay close attention to this trend. It could be a very helpful issue in a close election.

Downey reports that employers saw their healthcare costs rise 12 percent last year, on the heels of a 16 percent increase in 2002. Such dramatic increases have damaged manufacturing in America, prompted labor strikes, and encouraged corporations to ship jobs overseas.

Back in 1994, Jack Smith, a former CEO of General Motors, went on record as "personally favor[ing] the Canadian system." Smith, an anomaly ten years ago, today looks like the weatherman who knew which way the wind was blowing. The volume and intensity of anguished, bitter public complaints by business executives about the costs and burdens of health care has grown to major proportions.

In one of the more exciting if little-noticed developments for progressives, a coalition is beginning to emerge that includes not just CEOs but also America's doctors and unionized workers. Executives from the Big Three automakers, upset over insanely high healthcare costs, recently sent the Canadian government a letter urging Canada to keep its single-payer system so GM, DaimlerChrysler and Ford could hold operating expenses down.

And why not? After all, in 2003, GM spent $4.5 billion on health care for its US-based employees and retirees, at a cost of $1,200 per car, according to a GM spokesman. "If we cannot get our arms around this [healthcare] issue as a nation, our manufacturing base and many of our other businesses are in danger," warned Ford's Vice Chairman Allan Gilmour.

The nation's supermarket chains, for their part, facing stiff competition from non-union rivals including Wal-Mart, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, have a healthcare crisis on their hands. In 1999, Giant and Safeway paid $112 million in medical costs for employees in the Washington, DC region; by 2003, they were spending $180 million on healthcare subsidies. These rising costs, and the chains' efforts to slash workers' subsidies, recently prompted 70,000 California grocery workers to go on strike. Desperately looking for ways to stay competitive, the supermarket chains could find their salvation in a single-payer system. (Workers too would benefit tremendously, receiving guaranteed access to healthcare at affordable prices regardless of their employment status.)

Ditto for other corporations. William Rainville, CEO of Kadant Inc., a papermaking manufacturer, recently told the Washington Post that healthcare costs make operating in the US nearly unsustainable. Kadant says it will spend $6,500 on health care in 2004 for each of its American employees. But, the single-payer system in Canada is so inexpensive that Kadant is considering moving all its operations north of the border.

Labor unions, meanwhile, have good reason to support a single-payer system. The average worker saw out-of-pocket healthcare spending climb from $1,890 in 2000 to $2,790 in 2003; a 48 percent jump, according to the New York Times. Meanwhile, the percentage of employers that fully subsidized health care for employees' families dropped from 27 percent in 2001 to 15 percent in 2003.

According to a Harvard Medical School survey, 64 percent of Massachusetts doctors recently endorsed a national single-payer system. Frustrated by the costs and cumbersome paperwork, doctors said they would gladly cut fees if it would eliminate those pesky piles of insurance claims forms.

"Most doctors are fed up with the health care system," explains Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, an author and a leading reformer. "It's not just the paperwork and insurance hassles, but knowing that many of our patients can't afford to fill the prescriptions we write for them. And millions of people who are uninsured avoid care altogether until they're desperately ill."

A single-payer healthcare system will also save jobs, increase profit margins and attack the mushrooming problem of outsourcing jobs to India, China and other nations boasting cheap labor markets. In addition, by enacting a single-payer system, the US will significantly reduce health care administrative costs, saving an estimated $286 billion annually. That's enough to cover over 43 million uninsured Americans, create a real, universal prescription drug benefit, retrain laid-off employees, and strengthen preventative care.

America's conservative critics like to portray Canada's single-payer healthcare as socialistic, inefficient, and second-rate. A vast majority of Canadians, however, give consistently high marks to their single-payer system. Moreover, the Canadians, on average, live two years longer than us. (If that's not an endorsement for single-payer reform, I don't know what is.) If the politicians and media refuse to lead the fight for universal health care, then enlightened CEOs and doctors, perhaps, will.

The L-Word

Why is it that liberals are so afraid to take their own side in an argument?

"Look, labels are so silly in American politics," Senator Kerry replied evasively when asked during the New York debate, "Are you a liberal?" I agree that labels are too simplistic. But why allow the L-word to be defined--and turned into a negative--by thugs at the Republican National Committee who don't know their own history? Isn't it time, after more than twenty years of conservative ascendancy, for liberals to take the offensive, stop biting their tongues and declare forcefully--I'm a liberal and proud of it!

So, next time you're asked, Senator, why not stand firm (you're already tall) and tell Americans, crisply, sharply and with conviction, how liberal values have shaped the greatness of this country. It won't lose you the election. It might just help you win it.

I'm sure you don't need this, but here's a short list of some of the great triumphs of 20th century liberalism--all vigorously opposed by conservatives at the time: Women's suffrage; Social Security; unemployment compensation; the minimum wage; child labor laws; Head Start, food stamps; Medicare; federal housing laws barring discrimination; the Voting Rights Act; the Civil Rights Act; anti-pollution statutes, guaranteed student loan programs and the forty-hour work week.

Senator, these victories made America a more just and open society. These programs embody the civilizing and mainstream values of the past decades and they show how liberals have repeatedly fought for ordinary Americans. A fighting liberal would take on rightwing extremists who are determined to rollback the hard-earned rights and liberties of the 20th century. Why not stand on liberalism's proud heritage? It sure beats running away from a winning legacy.

Time to Turn the Paige

At a meeting with the nation's governors last month, George W. Bush's Education Secretary, Rodney Paige, called the National Education Association (NEA) a "terrorist organization" because teachers have been decrying Bush's broken promises on his education reforms. And, as Robert Borosage and Earl Hadley explain in a new Nation Online article, after waves of criticism of Paige's comment forced the Secretary to "apologize," he then attacked teachers for using "obstructionist scare tactics."

In response, the Campaign for America's Future and MoveOn.org have joined together to launch a petition calling on the President to fire Paige. Click here to sign the petition, here to circulate the letter to friends, and here for background material explaining why Rod Paige is so poorly-qualified to run the nation's public school system.

Paige has said his comments derive from his concern about minority children being left behind. Were that the case though, he'd be picking his fight with the Bush Administration, which has called for cuts in education funding across the board for the next five years. But Paige isn't protecting children, he's protecting the President. Let's call him out.

An Indecent Proposal

"We are moving in the direction of undermining the First Amendment," said US Representative Ron Paul, the maverick Texan who was the only Republican member of the House to oppose the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004. Paul, one of the least likely defenders of shock jocks like Howard Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge, is, of course, correct. The measure, which passed the House by a vote of 391-22 last week, was written with the intent of preventing broadcast personalities from engaging in certain forms of potentially offensive speech by threatening them -- and the stations on which they appear -- with financial ruin.

Under the legislation that passed the House, the fine for an on-air personality who violates the ill-defined decency standards applied by the Federal Communications Commission would rise from $11,000 to $500,000. The fine against the owner of the station on which the violation was heard and seen would rise from $27,500 to $500,000.

Before the vote, officials of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists urged the measure's defeat, with union president John Connolly and executive director Greg Hessinger arguing in a letter to House members that, "Such legislation should be rejected on the grounds that it represents an unconstitutional threat to free speech and would have an unnecessary chilling effect on artistic freedom."

Representative Gary Ackerman, D-New York, was blunter. If implemented, the congressman said, the law would not have "a chilling effect." "It would have a freezing effect," he explained.

Marvin Johnson, an American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel, said "the very notion (of the legislation) runs counter to everything prescribed in the First Amendment. The vagueness of the language will lead broadcasters and individuals to stifle their remarks and remain silent rather than run the risk of facing an FCC fine. Not only will our First Amendment rights suffer, but so will the national dialogue. In the end, we are left with no clear understanding of just what is ‘indecent' and worse yet, it seems we will only find out when huge fines are levied on broadcasters or speakers."

So how did so flawed a piece of legislation win such overwhelming bipartisan support in the House? The answer has a lot to do with those flaws. Even members who knew the proposal was bad policy figured it was safe to support it because the bill's prospects in the Senate seemed slim; and because, if it ever did become law, the measure would face a certain court challenge.

The push for the Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2004, which ramped up after singer Janet Jackson's breast was exposed during the Super Bowl show, represents the worst sort of election-year showboating. It is directed only at over-the-air television and radio stations. No restrictions are placed on the nation's booming cable and satellite TV and satellite radio networks. And it does not begin to address one of the primary factors in the explosive growth of programming that Americans find offensive -- the concentration of control of radio stations in fewer and fewer hands after most limits on ownership were eliminated with the passage by Congress of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. As corporations such as Clear Channel have bought up local radio stations, they have swept out hometown programming that tended to reflect regional differences -- or that, at the least, responded to local complaints -- and imposed programming and personalities with no connection to the community.

"The fact is, higher fines are going to do nothing," argued Representative Dave Obey, D-Wisconsin. "If you want to do something to give communities the ability to stop this nonsense, you will take away from the FCC the ability to put broadcast power in the hands of a few corporations."

Representative Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, one of the most outspoken advocates for media reform in the Congress, explained that the House legislation dealt "only with the symptoms of the problem and not with the underlying cause" -- concentrated ownership.

Yet, when the votes were counted, even Obey and Hinchey voted for the measure. Only 22 members, including Paul and Ackerman, had the courage to actually vote "no," with most of them voicing free speech concerns. Another 20 members voted "present" or simply did not vote at all. Among those voting "no" were many of the House's most progressive members, including California Democrats Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee, Zoe Lofgren and Pete Stark, as well as New Yorkers Jerry Nadler and Jose Serrano. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, also voted "no," as did Georgia Democrat John Lewis, the veteran civil rights activist. Michigan Democrat John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, was among the members who did not vote.

While the House bill passed overwhelmingly, it still must clear some high hurdles before it become the law of the land. There appears to be less interest in the issue in the Senate than there was in the House. And, if the Senate does act, it will be on a significantly different piece of legislation. While the Senate bill would also raise fines to $500,000, it includes an amendment that addresses the media concentration concerns raised by Obey and Hinchey.

The Senate bill, if passed, would put on hold the media ownership rule changes endorsed by the FCC in a 3-2 vote last June. Under the provision, which was proposed by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan and approved by the Senate Commerce Committee, the General Accounting Office would conduct a year-long study of the relationship between media consolidation and the growth in the number of indecency complaints.

The FCC's moves to ease ownership limits would then be reassessed on the basis of the GAO study.

Because Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, is under pressure from the Bush administration to preserve the ownership rule changes -- which are popular with large media companies and campaign contributors associated with them -- it is unlikely that a vote will be scheduled anytime soon on legislation that includes the Dorgan amendment. Threats to freedom of speech may not be of much more concern to the Senate than they were to House, but threats to powerful corporations and campaign contributors are another matter altogether.

(John Nichols is the co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media [Seven Stories]. McChesney and Nichols are co-founders of Free Press, the media reform network. The Free Press website is at www.mediareform.net)

Happy Birthday, C-SPAN!

The mud is flying, as a bitter presidential campaign is under way. With eight months remaining until E-Day, commentators are already pointing to the vicious and caustic debate as yet another sign of the coarsening of America's political culture. The mainstream media hypes the charges and countercharges exchanged by the candidates without fully evaluating them and fixates on who's up and who's down (and who is screaming) rather than what's at stake. With the rise of the cable-news gabfests, there's more information but not necessarily more understanding. Despite the McCain-Feingold law, special-interest money continues to pour into electoral politics. Democrats are bending, if not breaking, the rules to keep soft-money alive. On the Hill, conservative Republicans are using mob-like tactics to control legislation. Are all the trends in the political-media world negative?

No. In recent decades, there has been one undeniable advance in the land of politics-and-the-media: C-SPAN. On March 19, the cable network that airs the proceedings of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, will turn 25 years old. Anyone who gives a damn about politics, policy, and public affairs ought to wish it a happy birthday and, more importantly, say thank you. They should also pay attention to regulatory and legislative actions that could threaten C-SPAN. More on that below. First, some praise.

C-SPAN has opened up Congress and Washington, broadcasting to the citizenry the (public) workings of the House and Senate: the deliberations on the floor, committee hearings, press conferences conducted by legislators. No longer do Americans have to page through the Congressional Record to see what their representatives have said. They do not have to rely upon reporters to learn what has transpired at a hearing. They can directly witness the actions of the legislative branch--without leaving the couch. The network has covered presidential speeches and showed White House press secretaries spinning and squirming as they conduct their daily press briefings. C-SPAN has also smashed the Beltway border by airing conferences and events sponsored by the various policy and political organizations of Washington. A C-SPAN viewer can become a Washington insider by watching think-tank wonks debate budget policies, the head of the Republican Party address political strategy, and consultants discuss technical changes in campaign-finance law.

And C-SPAN has delivered more than inside-Washington policy and politics. It focuses on books and provides an essential venue for discussions of nonfiction works. ( Book TV on C-SPAN2 airs 48 hours of literary programming each weekend, including the signature show Booknotes.) C-SPAN imported to the United States question time from the British House of Commons, showing Yanks that the Brits were playing hardball long before Chris Matthews came along. And it aired campaign events--uncut and uncensored. Would-be voters who might never see a presidential or congressional candidate up close and personal have been handed front-row seats. They can watch incumbents and challengers speaking at dinners or working the crowd at state fairs. C-SPAN conveys the scripted moments--such as the entire Democratic and Republican presidential conventions--and the unscripted. I remember watching Rep. Dick Gephardt a few years ago on C-SPAN. He was shaking hands at a campaign event, trying to engage with each person he briefly encountered. Whatever anyone said Gephardt found a way to agree and to move on. One man grasped Gephardt's hand and told him it was essential to get rid of the U.S. Postal Service. Yeah, yeah, Gephardt replied, we can do that. Then he pushed on--a politician on automatic pilot, brilliantly captured by C-SPAN.

More recently, C-SPAN did a wonderful job of covering the Iowa caucuses. On caucus night, it broadcast the deliberations of a caucus at a YMCA in Dubuque. This was the most gripping reality TV I have watched in years. Whoever directed the show deserves an Emmy. Several video crews tracked the lead organizers for each of the Democratic candidates. We could see them recruiting supporters and haggling with the other campaigns--sometimes quite desperately. There was emotion; there was drama. How could a viewer not share the sadness when the most ardent Gephardt backer--a young woman who had tried mightily to persuade her neighbors to back the Missouri congressman--trudged over to join the John Edwards crowd after her man failed to reach the 15 percent threshold? This was far more gripping than watching some prescreened make-believe real person get voted off an island.

C-SPAN makes politics and policy real. It does the same with commentary. As a television pontificator--I'm a contributor to Fox News Channel--I've grown accustomed to debating world-changing matters in two-minute snippets. C-SPAN, though, affords pundits, journalists, analysts, politicians, and authors whole swaths of time--from half an hour to 60 minutes--to discuss the crucial matters of the day. With no commercial interruptions. This can lead to the sort of in-depth conversations that are nearly impossible on many cable news shows. (Then again, there was the time I appeared on C-SPAN with conservative author David Horowitz for a full hour. That was more of a food-fight than an enlightened exchange of competing views, mainly because he kept shouting and accusing me and other war-in-Iraq skeptics of trying to destroy the United States. He even decried The Nation for having used French words on a recent cover. This was not a debate; this was a therapy session for Horowitz.)

Brian Lamb, who founded C-SPAN, is a true visionary. In 1977, he first pitched the idea of a public affairs network to the cable television industry. He then persuaded the House to let television cameras into its chamber. (It took the Senate nine years to catch up.) In all this time, he has kept the programming fair and balanced. As an interviewer and moderator, Lamb has played it straight down the middle. My hunch is that he's a Main Street-kind of Republican. But who knows? First and foremost, he wants a serious discussion that serves the viewer.

Lamb has also been a public affairs missionary. Not only has he expanded the reach of C-SPAN in the media (C-SPAN radio began a few years ago); Lamb has developed an extensive educational component for C-SPAN. The C-SPAN bus brings civics and history to school kids across the nation. Months ago, I participated in a new C-SPAN project: tele-teaching. A poli-sci professor was conducting a class on how Washington works for university students in Colorado, but he was doing it from a studio in C-SPAN's Washington offices. Thanks to a two-way video flow, he could see his students, as they sat in a classroom watching him--and me--on a video screen. The session worked, and this setup enabled him to bring in a string of Washington guest lecturers for the student's benefit.

C-SPAN is perhaps the closest-to-perfect Washington (and media) institution there is. Do I say this because it has always been kind to me? (It did put me on Washington Journal to discuss my latest book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception.) Not entirely. I am an unabashed fan. And as a journalist, I appreciate that C-SPAN makes life easier for those of us who cover politics, Congress, the White House, and public affairs. There are times when I cannot make it to a White House press briefing, a congressional hearing, a campaign event, or a think tank conference. Yet they appear on the little box in my office, and--presto!--I have the information or quote I need.

Twenty-five years old, C-SPAN is thriving. But it does face threats. The Federal Communications Commission has for months been putting off a decision on whether cable systems must give local broadcast stations two channels--one for an analog signal, the other for a digital signal. The point is to ease the transition from analog broadcasting to digital broadcasting. Yet if the FCC does require cable operators to assign two channels to each local broadcaster, that could create pressure on cable systems to dump other cable programming. The folks at C-SPAN fear this rule would cause some maxed-out systems to eliminate C-SPAN or C-SPAN2 to make room for the broadcasters' extra channels. "We are a niche service that does not provide revenue," says Bruce Collins, the corporate vice president and general counsel of C-SPAN. "How virtuous do you expect the cable operators to be? People think we're a public utility that will always be there, but that's not true."

Cable systems are not required to carry C-SPAN. They do not offer C-SPAN as a public service. It's part of most cable menus because there are enough Americans who want to watch their government in action. Cable operators use C-SPAN as a selling point for their services, and they pay C-SPAN for this privilege. C-SPAN, unlike PBS and NPR, receives no government funding and accepts no corporate sponsorships. It relies 100 percent on the license fees paid to it by the cable guys. In fact, Lamb pioneered a business model. He developed a public-interest media organization that is unsubsidized and generates no revenues and found a home for it within the for-profit jungle of the cable television industry. But if cable systems are forced to hand out a second channel to local broadcast stations and conclude they can make more bucks without C-SPAN than with C-SPAN, local citizens could be cut off.

Another threat to C-SPAN materialized just days ago. On March 9, in a narrow vote--12 to 11--the Senate commerce committee barely beat back an effort to extend the decency standards that now apply to broadcasters to all cable programming (with the exception of premium and pay-for-view channels). How could this harm C-SPAN? After all, it's not as if it airs Howard Stern. But C-SPAN routinely shows events--campaign rallies, protests, and press conferences--where occasionally words deemed "indecent" by the FCC are uttered. That's what happens in real life. And there have been times when C-SPAN has covered a march or demonstration when a Janet Jackson-like moment has occurred. Lamb's guiding editorial philosophy has been that viewers in their living rooms should be able to see and hear exactly what they would see and hear if they were sitting in a hearing room or standing on the Washington Mall. But an indecency standard applied to C-SPAN could destroy its commitment to a showing events unedited in their entirety. "We don't want to edit and pixilate," Collins says.

Since C-SPAN has become such an essential part of the nation's political-media infrastructure, it should be able to handle the challenges it now faces. But let's hope it also continues to expand its (and our) horizons. Oral arguments at the Supreme Court ought to be carried on C-SPAN. Perhaps one day, Lamb will overcome the resistance of the robed ones. And imagine if C-SPAN could somehow facilitate the creation of question time in the U.S. House--when members of Congress could confront the president with queries.

That is raising expectations high. But Lamb and C-SPAN deserve high expectations. Who (besides Lamb) thought that C-SPAN would go so far--and enrich the national discourse so much--when it first started showing House members orating (or bloviating) in 1979? Many happy returns, C-SPAN. The Republic is better for your efforts.

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DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.

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