The Nation

Bush's Big (and Easy) Speech in New Orleans

George W. Bush does not do the Big Speech thing well. How many times has a fretting White House dispatched Bush to deliver a Big Speech to rally popular support for the Iraq war? Four, five, more? I've lost count. And I seem to recall a Big Speech meant to revive his Social Security plan. None of those other Big Speeches did much for Bush or the flagging policy he was trying to advance. In fact, he hasn't succeeded with a Big Speech since the immediate post-9/11 period. Still, on Thursday night, it was time to try again--this time while standing in front of a podium in an empty Jackson Square in New Orleans. On this occasion, Bush's aim was not to shore up an initiative upon which the public had soured but to change the Hurricane Katrina narrative from what-went-wrong (a tale in which Bush and his aides played prominent roles) to what-we're-going-to-do (a brand new story in which Bush can recast himself as a hands-on leader, not a fly-over incompetent.)

Will this work? Can Bush pivot from being a president who presided over a post-disaster disaster and earned well-deserved criticism from across the ideological spectrum (neocon commentator Bill Kristol conceded Bush is not always "good on execution") to being a chief executive able to oversee the most massive reconstruction in American history in an effective and visionary manner? One speech is not going to bring about such a transformation. His administration's response to Katrina sparked outrage and disappointment that will not soon recede. My hunch is that many Americans are in a show-me mood. After Bush won the last election with less than 51 percent of the vote, this fellow claimed he had amassed political capital that he could spend as he saw fit. He was wrong. And his political capital--if recent polling is to be believed--seems to be, like his budgets, in deep deficit. That was before Hurricane Katrina, when the mess in Iraq and high gas prices were dominating the bad news. So Bush will not be getting off cheap with a moderately well-delivered speech in which he expressed noble sentiments and presented reasonably sounding--though generalized--proposals for assisting the victims of Hurricane Katrina and for rebuilding the Crescent City and other areas of the Gulf Coast.

There is, as he might say, much hard work to do. It remains to be seen if his administration--which, this tragedy has demonstrated, fancies cronyism over competence--can do a better job in NOLA than it has in Iraq. In Jackson Square, Bush declared, "We will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes." Where have we heard that before? There will be tough decisions and policy and political battles ahead. Can Bush rise above himself? In this speech, he offered broad strokes and grand promises of assistance and reconstruction. But he mentioned only three specifics, calling for setting up $5000 employment training funds for displaced workers, selling off federal property in the area to homesteaders, and creating a Gulf Opportunity Zone. This last idea is based on a policy hobbyhorse long favored by conservatives: create tax-free-zones free of regulations in hard-hit areas to encourage companies to set up shop there. Can this be done in a manner so that corporations don't end up dumping employees elsewhere and rushing to the GOZ to take advantage of depressed conditions there? With all money that will be heading toward New Orleans and the region--the estimated price tag for reconstruction appears to be several hundred billion dollars--won't there be enough incentive for businesses to flock to the region?


Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Hurricane Katrina, Cheney and a pipeline in Mississippi, Bush's bathroom break at the UN and other matters.


Bush clearly has decided to throw money at what he called "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever known." But this enormous project will be managed by folks who don't like government. The Bush White House and Republicans in Congress were poised to cut tens of billions of dollars from Medicaid, student loan programs and food stamps prior to Katrina. But now Bush has committed himself to spending far more than that on reviving the Gulf Coast and NOLA. Can the Bush gang manage this task better than they have managed contracting in Iraq? Bush, sensitive to this point, noted that he would dispatch inspectors general to guard against fraud. (Good idea. Why not do the same in Iraq?) But he and his gang have not been so fastidious about the use of taxpayer funds elsewhere. Can he devise a system in which Halliburton and other mega-firms are not the big winners? Does he care to?

Or course, there was no mention of how to pay for this. That was in keeping with standard accounting practices in Bushland. He said about suspending--or, dare one say it, pushing back--the tax cuts he has handed to the wealthiest of Americans. He has placed his war in Iraq on the national credit card, further weakening the financial standing of the country. Will he do the same with New Orleans?

Bush did acknowledge that Katrina has revealed the fault lines of race and poverty in American society. How could he not? He conceded the federal government had not responded appropriately. Again, how could he not? He said he would review the government's performance, and he endorsed a congressional investigation (which, as of now, is to be controlled by Republicans). He offered no words of support for an independent and bipartisan investigation. Consequently, it seems that Republicans will be investigating Republicans. Perhaps Bush will put Dick Cheney in charge of his review.

Toward the end of the speech, Bush proclaimed, "I, as president, am responsible for the problem and the solution." But prior to his photo-op speech from Jackson Square, he had already proven the first part of that statement. He has much distance to go--to wade, to slog--to prove the latter.

Accountability 101

Horrified by the realization that a great many Americans see him as an uncaring Herbert Hoover, the president who forgot New Orleans attempted with his address to the nation on Thursday night to remake himself as a Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the 21st century.

The president's speech from New Orleans was full of proposals, promises and pledges. But Americans will be excused if they wait for proof of this conservative's newfound compassion.

After all, the president was not just talking about rebuilding the Gulf Coast. He was talking about rebuilding his own reputation.

Nothing gets the Bush White House's damage control operation moving like declining poll numbers. And so it should come as no surprise that the president is suddenly "Georgie on the spot" in New Orleans.

After days of initially neglecting the humanitarian crisis that followed Hurricane Katrina, and then seeking to assign to others blame for the death and chaos caused by that neglect, the Bush team has suddenly noticed that the American people are upset. The president's approval ratings have dipped below 40 percent -- into what pollsters refer to as the "Nixon during Watergate" range.

So Bush is now positioning himself as the savior of the Gulf Coast. He has even taken what for him is the unprecedented step of accepting a small measure of accountability for his actions -- or, in this case, inactions. "To the extent the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility," the president grumbled earlier this week. In his speech on Thursday night, Bush admitted that, "Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in times of emergency."

He'll get no debate there. Nor will he hear many objections to his opening of the federal-aid spiggots to help rebuild New Orleans and other communities along the Gulf Coast.

But there will be some lingering skepticism about whether George W. Bush really understands what it means to take responsibility.

In fairness, while Bush does not have a track record that inspires confidence in his ability to hold himself or his aides to account, his Thursday night address from New Orleans represented progress for an administration that has had a problem with accountability. At least Karl Rove did not dress the boy president up in a search-and-rescue team uniform and pose him in front of a banner, declaring "Mission Accomplished."

But if Bush really wants to be taken seriously when he says that he is willing to accept responsibility for federal failures, he needs to do more than simply tour New Orleans in an open truck, preach to the television cameras from that city's Jackson Square and promise to deliver the aid that any president -- Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal -- would offer in such a circumstance.

If the president is serious, he should:

1.) Make it clear that administration aides who engage in cynical and divisive efforts to discredit state and local officials will be removed immediately from their positions. In a time of national emergency, the White House should not be playing politics in order to shift the blame for the missteps and misdeeds of the president and his appointees.

2.) Support the immediate creation of an independent blue ribbon commission to investigate why the initial response to the crisis was so miserable. The president should recognize that if there are fundamental flaws in the nation's emergency management systems, they must be corrected now -- before the next disaster hits.

3.) Take steps to ensure that the federal response to the crisis and its aftermath will be fiscally responsible and ethical. At a time when massive new expenditures are being made, the administration should abandon its proposal to rob the treasury by cutting estate taxes for the wealthy. Additionally, while federal funding of relief and rebuilding initiatives should be generous, it should also be audited and appropriate.

Major contracts with private corporations should never be awarded without proper bidding, and strict limits should be set on the profits that firms are allowed to take away from those contracts.

One of Bush's predecessors, Woodrow Wilson, put it well when he said, "Big business is not dangerous because it is big, but because its bigness is an unwholesome inflation created by privileges and exemptions which it ought not to enjoy."

If George Bush is really going to take responsibility for the renewal of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, his most serious responsibility in the months and years to come will be to ensure that the hundreds of billions of federal tax dollars that are assigned to that endeavor do not merely enrich corporations that have contributed to his campaign and employed his vice president.

The president broke faith with the American people when, after Hurricane Katrina hit, he lost sight of his responsibility to provide immediate and sufficient aid to those most in need. If he now seeks to redeem himself, he must take personal responsibility for making sure that the promise of renewal is not squandered on profiteering.

Ukraine's Tarnished Orange Revolution

The Hurricane and its aftermath have, rightly, seized our attention. I find it hard to focus on other news--even the growing violence in Iraq. But there is a world turning and churning out there. So, when a new (and wrinkled chapter) in possibly the biggest end-of-year story--Ukraine's Orange Revolution"--sprang into the papers in these last days, I didn't pay enough attention to it.

But then I remembered the extraordinary street protests in Kiev. Who could forget the riveting images of the thousands of demonstrators, many of them students, standing for hours in the city's Independence Square in sub-zero temperatures--waving banners, chanting and protesting 12 years of corrupt misrule and what they believed was a rigged election? 

But while there was something exhilirating about the democratic awakening in Kiev and other cities, there was also a good deal of rank hypocrisy on display in Washington, DC. As I wrote then: This Administration celebrates pro-democracy rallies abroad, while showing no respect for America's pro-democracy protesters. And despite the exhiliration as The Guardian's Jonathan Steele noted at the time, "to suggest that [opposition candidate Viktor Yuschenko] would provide a sea-change in Ukrainian politics and economic management is naive."

Just last week, events revealed how political infighting, accusations of corruption and pitched battles over power and property have sullied the democratic hopes of those pro-democracy protesters. The skirmishes also remind us how tough it is to translate people power into viable political change.

For an insightful analysis of the past week's developments in Ukraine--and their significance for the future of a revolution which so galvanized the world's attention--I asked Mark von Hagen, the Boris Bakhmeteff Professor of Russian and Eastern European Studies at Columbia University, for his reflections.


"This wasn't the future for which we froze on Independence Square lastwinter," laments the internet site of Pora, the political party thatclaims its origins in last year's Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Themajor source of discontent with the now dismissed government ofPresident Viktor Yushchenko has been a perception that it has becomebogged down in cronyism, corruption and counterproductive internalconflicts.

The crisis that brought on the dramatic events of last week--first thetelevised resignation of the president's State Secretary (his chief ofthe presidential administration) with demands for the resignation ofseveral other members of the government on charges that they havebetrayed the orange revolution for their personal financial gains,then the President's televised dismissal of the entire government andappointment of caretaker ministers, and most recently the angryresponses of two of the fired ministers (Prime Minister YuliaTymoshenko and Deputy Premier Mykola Tomenko)--was the culmination ofprocesses that were set in motion almost as soon as Yushchenko wasinaugurated in January.

First, the new government structure was designed to disperse power andcreated at least two (the Prime Minister and the National Defense andSecurity Council under Petro Poroshenko) and possibly three (thepresidential administration itself) axes of power that sentconflicting orders to the ministries and their officials. This wasoverlaid and in part motivated by the rival personal and politicalambitions of Tymoshenko and Poroshenko, nicknamed the "Chocolate King"for his oligarchic status in the sugar industry. Ukraine facesparliamentary elections next spring and a likely redistribution ofpower from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, in line withthe compromise worked out in December to resolve the political crisisthen. Tymoshenko represents a relatively more statist approach toeconomic reform, whereas the Poroshenko-Yushchenko team favor fastermarketization and privatization.

Almost from the start, the new government has been perceived by themedia and in opinion polls as riddled with conflicts ofinterest. Several ministers and other high-ranking officialsmaintained their profitable businesses after they took office and havecontinued to enrich themselves. This public discontent hit close tothe president's home this summer when the internet newspaperUkrainskaya Pravda published a story about the president's 19-year-oldson observed driving a BMW valued at Euro 133,000 on the streets ofKyiv, parking it illegally in the middle of a residential street, andalso sporting a very expensive cell phone. The president's firstreaction was to attack the press for doing the dirty work of theopposition (and hinting at other nefarious forces). Unfortunately,this has not been uncharacteristic of the government's responses toother exposes. The Minister of Justice was defended by both Poroshenkoand Yushchenko when it was learned that the PhD in political sciencethat he claimed to have earned at Columbia University on his officialwebsite never happened. Later the Minister even charged that hackershad violated the Columbia University registrar's system andmanipulated his records. At least in the case of the President's son,there was a different outcome. After hundreds of Ukrainian journalistscriticized the president harshly for his treatment of a fellowjournalist and for his government's attitude to the press in general,Yuschenko held a hand of peace to the offended journalist andnewspaper and apologized for his "father's" defensive impulse.

How to put this in some perspective?

Unfortunately, cronyism, corruption and even falsified credentials arehardly unique to Ukraine, as we learned again in the tragic anddisgraceful Hurricane Katrina history.

And that all this controversy has become known and is the subject of alively and critical media is a change, we hope, for the better. ThatUkraine appears to have a genuine political opposition that has accessto the media distinguishes its current situation from those in nearbyneighbors to the north, east and south. Similarly Ukraine has beenmore open to the NGO sector (including those supported frominternational sources) and did, after all, witness the most promisingpeople's movement in the region for several years.

At another level, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine has nowhere thepolitical clout and inclination to reactionary nationalism that it hasin Russia; in Ukraine the Orthodox are split themselves, but also facea resurgent Greek-Catholic Church, evangelical Protestants, and a muchsmaller Jewish revival. These are generally positive trends.

Where will things go from here? Much depends on how Yushchenko reformshis government and what the new opposition will feel it can accomplishin the runup to the elections. The first two appointments, one asacting prime minister of an uncontroversial technocrat who hassurvived a couple regimes (Yekhanurov) and the second as new chief ofthe presidential administration of a former deputy minister forEuropean affairs (Rybachuk), send mixed signals. The first is seen assomeone who will not rock the boat and allow the president to reemergeas the leader of the state. The second enjoys a generally goodreputation, but is close to the president and a trusted aide. It'sclear that, as Tomenko--one of the ministers who resigned in protestbefore he could be fired--said, one stage of the Orange revolution hasclearly come to an end.

One can hope that a new government will get the nation moving forwardagain, but the experience of the past half year has reminded us to becautious when hoping that people power translates into real politicalchange.

The Stakes in Roberts's Nomination

In the first few days of John G. Roberts, Jr.'s  hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, most Senators have focused their questions on his views of privacy, precedent and free speech. So far, only Sen. Russell Feingold has asked Roberts about national security and civil liberties, a critical area of jurisprudence in this post 9/11 age. 

As Raj Purohit writes today in TomPaine.com, a Chief Justice Roberts would guide the court's decisions on cases that test the Bush Administration's determination to emphasize the prevention of terrorism over both the rights of Americans and the rule of law.  If the recent past is any guide, the Supreme Court could soon rule on the White House's efforts to wordsmith its definition of torture; the rendition of suspected terrorists to countries that openly employ torture; the indefinite detention of American citizens without trial; the Pentagon's Guantanamo tribunals, the scope of US obligations under treaties like Geneva, and various Constitutionally shaky provisions of the Patriot Act. And Roberts' record suggests he'll be strongly inclined to vote in favor of  ever-expanding executive branch powers.

Unfortunately, the Democrats appear completely unable to stop or even slow Roberts, who seems to have obtained reasonable, nice-guy status by virtue of his John Edwards-like smile and his measured manner.  Consequently, wrote The Nation's David Corn in his Capital Games blog, they can only have one political objective: to boost the number of "no" votes to Bush's nominee for Supreme Court Chief Justice. This would allow the Democrats to claim their party is the one that cares about privacy rights and could help lay the groundwork for opposition to Bush's next Supreme Court pick, in the likely instance of an extremist nominee.  

This is where you can still help. If our legislators can be convinced that the political price of supporting Roberts is at least as great as that of opposing him, then we may yet see some backbone. Click here to send a letter to your elected reps imploring them to oppose Roberts' nomination. And find resources at the Alliance for Justice's Supreme Court Watch site detailing exactly why he's the wrong choice for Chief Justice. (The site has a running podCast of the senate hearings, too.) People for the American Way has also put out an excellent fact-sheet on Roberts's record as well as a campus activism toolkit.


Hurricane Katrina Relief

Click here to see a list of progressive, grassroots organizations, collected by Adam Howard, that we think are worthy recipients of hurricane relief donations. These groups are already on the ground and are dedicated to delivering aid to those who need it most.

The Moving Ideas Network has also just published a Hurricane Katrina progressive policy and action guide which is well worth checking out. It features a collection of articles and media coverage on the disaster as well as a call to support an independent Katrina Commission that would fully assess why it took so long for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to respond and how we can improve preparedness for future natural disasters.


Good for Shaq! 

Associated Press

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Shaquille O'Neal provided an assist to police over the weekend, trailing a man who allegedly assaulted a gay couple before alerting an arresting officer.

The 7-foot-1 Miami Heat center, who is in the process of becoming a Miami Beach reserve officer, was driving on South Beach around 3 a.m. Sunday. He saw a passenger in a car yell anti-gay slurs at the couple, who were walking, said Bobby Hernandez, a spokesman for the Miami Beach Police Department.

The man then got out of the car and threw a bottle, hitting one of the pedestrians, who was not seriously hurt. The man got back in the car, which sped off. O'Neal followed, flagging down an officer who made an arrest.

"We Can't Make It Here"

Last spring, in an attempt to make President Bush appear to be more of a regular guy, the White House released a list of the tunes the commander-in-chief was listening to on his iPod. The list featured mostly country, alt-country and blues artists, including John Fogerty, John Hiatt, Alan Jackson, George Jones and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Perhaps the most interesting name on Bush's listening list was that of James McMurtry, the brilliant Austin-based songwriter who used his 2004 live CD to poke fun at the president's attempts to fake a Texaser-than-thou accent.

McMurtry responded to the news that Bush's playlist included his song "Valley Road" by politely suggesting that the president might not be the most serious listener of his songs, which frequently detail the damage done to Americans by rampaging corporatists and an uncaring government.

In case there was any doubt about the differences between George W. Bush's worldview and James McMurtry's, the musician posted a savage critique of the president and his pals, "We Can't Make It Here," on his Web site shortly before last year's election. That song, a haunting reflection on corporate globalization and wars of whim, was the highlight of McMurtry's set last month when he played at Camp Casey, the protest vigil organized outside the president's Crawford, Texas, ranch by Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq.

McMurtry did not write the song to cheer on Sheehan's demand that the president meet with her. Nor did he write it in response to White House neglect of the suffering along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But "We Can't Make It Here" captured the mood of the moment in Crawford, just as parts of this epic song touch on sentiments that run deep among the evacuees from New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile and all the other battered communities of the southeast.

Ultimately, however, "We Can't Make It Here" is about more than the White House's failures with regard to one mother or one crisis. It is about the dismissal of thousands of neglected communities and millions of neglected Americans who -- without the benefit of media attention -- regularly echo the the blunt closing cry of McMurtry's song for attention to the working poor who have lost their jobs to "free trade" and federal neglect and their children to a war founded on lies.

Written in the voice of a textile worker whose job was lost when a factory was shuttered and the production sent overseas, McMurtry closes his opus by asking:

Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin

Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I'm in

Should I hate 'em for having our jobs today

No I hate the men sent the jobs away

I can see them all now, they haunt my dreams

All lily white and squeaky clean

They've never known want, they'll never know need

Their sh- - don't stink and their kids won't bleed

Their kids won't bleed in the damn little war

And we can't make it here anymore


Will work for food

Will die for oil

Will kill for power and to us the spoils

The billionaires get to pay less tax

The working poor get to fall through the cracks

Let 'em eat jellybeans let 'em eat cake

Let 'em eat sh- -, whatever it takes

They can join the Air Force, or join the Corps

If they can't make it here anymore


And that's how it is

That's what we got

If the president wants to admit it or not

You can read it in the paper

Read it on the wall

Hear it on the wind

If you're listening at all

Get out of that limo

Look us in the eye

Call us on the cell phone

Tell us all why

George Bush refused to look Cindy Sheehan in the eye. He won't do any better by the workers who share the experience James McMurtry portrays. And, while this particular singer may have a place on the presidential iPod, he won't be singing at the White House anytime soon. But he will be singing to America. McMurtry begins touring this week in support of a great new album, Childish Things, which includes the track "We Can't Make It Here." (Readers can find the schedule at www.jamesmcmurtry.com) Don't make the mistake of missing the man whose songs speak more truth about America in five minutes than George W. Bush has in five years.

Question Time for Roberts

Before the John Roberts confirmation hearings began, progressive opponents of Bush's pick to be chief justice were fretting that the media attention given to the Katrina mess would prevent Democrats from using the hearings to make a public case against Roberts. Now I'm thinking that maybe--in a way--it was good that the public is not seeing much of the Roberts hearings. The Democrats have not succeeded in depicting him as a danger to Americans. As I previously wrote, most of the Democratic members of the judiciary committee spent the first day of the hearings--the warm-up day--fixating on process questions, such as whether they had the right to ask Roberts questions about his views. (See the post below.) Day 2 was the supposed to be the main attraction: question time for Roberts. And it came as no surprise that a fellow who has argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court was able to deftly handle the queries from the Dems. That's not to say that he always was right in his answers or bested his interrogator on debate points. But the Democrats landed few blows. They can huff that he did not answer questions about Roe while he did about Brown v. Board of Education. But Roberts--as was his mission--provided them little ammunition. He displayed a gentle and thoughtful manner. And appearances do matter. (Just ask Robert Bork if he wishes he had shaved off his less-than-stylish beard.) Roberts sounded reasonable, as he ducked critical matters or parried with Democrats.

Right off, Republican Senator Arlen Specter, the chairman of the committee, led Roberts through the critical issue of the hearings. He asked Roberts about Roe and the principle of stare decisis. Roberts quoted James Hamilton in the Federalist Papers that judges need to be "bound down by rules and precedents." He said all the right things about the importance of precedent and the value of stare decisis. He noted that precedent can only be overturned in limited cases. But he would not talk specifically about Roe, noting he feels "the need to stay away from the discussion of specific cases." Specter several times described Roe as well-established precedent, calling it a "super-duper" precedent. Roberts thoughtfully discussed the abstract notion of precedent. But he said nothing about how stare decisis might be applied to future cases involving abortion rights. This duet produced rhetoric useful to each participant. Specter trumpeted his support for abortion rights and argued that Roe should not be overturned. Roberts praised precedent as a guiding but not inviolable principle without making any commitments to protect Roe.

Then various Democrats took their turns. Senator Pat Leahy tussled with Roberts about a decades-old memo in which he seemed to suggest presidents--not Congress--can decide whether to wage war. Roberts claimed--politely--that Leahy was "vastly over-reading" the memo and added that he merely had been representing the position of his boss at the time, the president. Senator Ted Kennedy challenged Roberts on positions he had taken--or represented--on civil rights law when he worked for the Reagan administration. Roberts revived arguments the Reaganites had used to oppose certain remedies for discrimination. This produced much spirited much back and forth over legal matters years old. That's not to say this stuff is not important. But I doubt the debate over the Grove City decision would resonate with a general audience. Under the questioning of Senator Joseph Biden and other Democrats, Roberts did say that the Constitution contained a right to privacy. But he would not say whether such a right covered abortion. Biden cornered Roberts once or twice--but not in any fashion that would matter much beyond the committee room.


Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Hurricane Katrina and other subjects in the news.


Senator Russell Feingold inquired about an ethics matter. In April, Roberts, an appellate court judge, heard a case involving the Bush administration six days after he was interviewed by administration officials for a possible Supreme Court vacancy. Feingold asked why did he not recuse himself. Roberts refused to explain. At the hearings, Roberts opponents were telling reporters that Senator Dianne Feinstein was likely to cause the biggest sparks of the day by questioning Roberts on Roe. But she fared no better. As she pressed him, he continued to bob and weave in his artful and unflappable manner. At the end of the day, the Democrats had extracted little of political use. The Democratic Party did issue a press release headlined: "Roberts Watch--Day Two: A Day of Evasion, Obstruction and Distortion." Its examples were not unconvincing. But neither were they likely to change the course of the nomination.

There was probably not much the Democrats could have done. Roberts is a smart, savvy, and smooth attorney. The legal issues at hand do not translate well into soundbites. But I wonder what might have happened had one Democratic senator taken a less conventional approach to the legalistic questioning. Imagine if Feinstein had asked Roberts: "You indicated that Brown v. Board of Education was decided correctly. Would you tell us if you believe Roe v. Wade was decided correctly?" Roberts would have ducked and dodged, of course. But what if she asked the question again. Maybe once more. Then looked at the clock and said, "I have 28 minutes left. I am going to wait all that time for an answer because I think Americans should know whether the next chief justice of Supreme Court believes abortion rights ought to be protected or not." And then stared at him for 28 minutes. Would that have been a galvanizing moment? Who knows? But it sure would have made the point more strongly than any of the exchanges that occurred.


Good news on Roberts? In Tuesday's Washington Post, reporter Chuck Lane writes about a study compiled by a professor who studied all of Roberts' decisions in his two-year stint as a federal appeals court judge and found that he was four times more conservative than the average appeals court judge on civil rights and civil liberties cases, about average on criminal justice cases, and sort of liberal on cases involving economic and labor matters. Kenneth Manning, the University of Massachusetts professor who did this study, said, "The general read I got was of a non-activist stance--a general reluctance to go out of his way and rule against government regulators. If the EPA ruled against the chemical industry, the general tendency was to defer to the agency." I don't vouch for this study. But maybe Roberts is not as awful-awful as his foes fear. In any event, given how the hearings are going, wishing is a reasonable exercise.

Sweet Victory: Celebrating ACORN

The events of the past two weeks have laid bare America's secret: that poverty abounds in this profoundly unequal nation. As the body count in New Orleans rises, it has become abundantly clear that the plight of America's poor--who have suffered particularly harsh setbacks in the past three decades--is nothing short of an epidemic. Yet throughout this era of rollbacks and blind-eye politics, the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now (ACORN) has tirelessly fought back on behalf of our nation's other half. This week, we offer a special Sweet Victory tribute to a fearless organization that has long stood on the forefront of the movement for economic justice.

In 1970, Wade Rathke arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas, and organized a drive to help welfare recipients attain clothing and furniture. Months later, the Arkansas Community Organization for Reform Now--a broad-based coalition that had grown out of Rathke's early efforts--was taking on Arkansas Power and Light, one of the state's largest corporate players. ACORN demanded compensation for local farmers whose livelihoods were endangered by AP&L's plans for a new power plant. After months of organized pressure from ACORN, AP&L backed down and dropped the plans altogether.

A decade later, ACORN had expanded into twenty different states and was creating national headlines with its nine-point "People's Platform" and squatting campaign, which hammered the issue of affordable housing into the national discourse. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, ACORN fought vigilantly against insurance redlining--a practice that, thanks largely to ACORN's efforts, is now illegal--and helped secure housing for thousands of low-income individuals.

In recent years, ACORN has been a critical player in the living wage movement and has battled courageously against the practice of predatory lending, winning a landmark settlement in a nationwide class-action suit against Household Finance (now under HSBC) in 2003. ACORN has also created alternative public schools in several cities, improved health conditions for residents living in toxic environments and worked to tear down barriers to enfranchisement across the country. In 2004 alone, ACORN members registered more than 1.1 million new voters.

Today, ACORN has an active membership of 175,000 member families, with 850 neighborhood chapters in seventy-five cities across America. In 2004, ACORN became an international organization, opening chapters in Canada, the Dominican Republic and Peru. ACORN's website features more on the organization's history and a complete list of its astounding accomplishments.

It is a tragic irony that ACORN--an organization that has perhaps done more than any other to support those whom our government has left behind--was among the victims of Katrina's aftermath. Its national headquarters, which are located New Orleans, have been severely damaged, and now ACORN needs your help. As I've suggested in previous weblogs, please consider making a donation so that ACORN can build a temporary headquarters, get back on its feet and continue to do its vital work. In times like these, we need ACORN more than ever.

* * *

Finally, a brief Sweet Victory nod to Representative John Conyers and his fellow Progressive Caucus members Representative Mel Watt, Representative Jerrold Nadler, and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee for their stand against the Bankruptcy Bill. The bill, which is slated to take effect on October 17, will be another devastating blow to the tens of thousands of displaced and debt-ridden New Orleanians. Conyers and others need our help in their effort to exempt the victims of Katrina from this cruel bill that unjustly penalizes the poor. Contact your representatives and urge them to act in the interests of people over corporate interests. If not now, when?

"Dignified Process"?

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the nomination of John Roberts to serve as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court began with an appropriate message from Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold.

A maverick within his own Democratic party and the Senate as a whole, Feingold called upon the committee, the full Senate and all of official Washington -- a city that frequently is more concerned about images than Constitutional duties -- to get serious about the monumental task that lies ahead.

"Some have called for a 'dignified process,'" Feingold said of the confirmation process. "So have I. But at times it sounds like what some really want for the nominee is an easy process. That is not what the Constitution or the traditions of the Senate call for. If by "dignified" they mean that tough and probing questions are out of bounds, I must strongly disagree. It is not undignified to ask questions that press the nominee for his views on the important areas of the law that the Supreme Court confronts. It is not undignified to review and explore the nominee's writings, his past statements, the briefs he has filed, the memos he has written. It is not undignified to ask the nominee questions he would rather not answer should he prefer to remain inscrutable, or, worse yet, all things to all people."

Feingold continued, "This process is not a game. It is not a political contest. It is one of the most important things that the Senate does – confirm or reject nominees to the highest court in the land. And we as Senators must take that responsibility very seriously."

The unfortunate reality is that Roberts is unlikely to face an appropriate level of scrutiny. That's because, in many senses, the process is a game. Most members of the Judiciary Committee wear their responsibilities lightly. They want to appeal to the interest groups that they need to advance their political ambitions, so they will ask some tough questions. But they do not want to appear so "ideological" or "passionate" that the greater mass of voters in their home states might be offended, so they will not push as aggressively -- or vote as courageously -- as they should.

This political calculus has played out for a number of years. For the most part, nominees for lifetime sinecures on the highest and most definitional court in the land are given a free pass. That was certainly the case the last time that the Senate weighed a Supreme Court nomination.

In 1994, a less-than-appealing nominee of then President Bill Clinton, Stephen Breyer, swept through the confirmation process and was approved by an overwhelming Senate vote of 87-9.

Breyer, whose record as a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge displayed an overwhelming bias in favor of corporate interests over those of consumers and workers, should have had a hard time getting on the court. He didn't. Though consumer activists warned that Breyer's confirmation would move the court in "an anticonsumer, antiworker, antienvironmental" direction, only one senator, Ohio's Howard Metzenbaum, challenged Breyer on his pro-corporate proclivities. In the end, even Metzenbaum (and, it should be noted, Feingold) voted for the nominee. Only a handful of conservative Republicans, who were mainly interested in poking at Clinton, rejected Breyer.

That was not as it should have been.

In its failure to scrutinize and effectively challenge Breyer's biases, the Senate let the country down.

Breyer certainly enjoyed a "dignified" confirmation process. But that dignity came as the expense of the Senate's Constitutional mandate to provide not merely "advice and consent" but to serve as a check and a balance upon the executive and his nominees.

Now, for the first time since Breyer was approved more than a decade ago, the Senate is called upon to accept or reject a new nominee to the high court. Again, the nominee has a record of extreme pro-corporate bias -- a record that has received scant notice as the debate over Roberts, such as it is, has tended to focus on so-called "hot-button" issues, such as reproductive rights.

Feingold set the proper standard when he suggested that Roberts must be subjected to the sort of broad, unapologetic scrutiny that Breyer so unfortunately avoided.

"It goes without saying that the Supreme Court is one of the most important institutions in our constitutional system and that the position of Chief Justice of the United States is one of the most important positions in our government," the Wisconsin senator explained. "The impact of this nominee on our country, should he be confirmed, will be enormous. That means our scrutiny of this nominee must be intense and thorough. In my view, we must evaluate not only his qualifications, but also his ability to keep an open mind, his sensitivity to the concerns of all Americans and their right to equal protection under the laws; not only his intellectual capacity, but his judgment and wisdom; not only his achievements, but his fairness, and his courage to stand up to the other branches of government when they infringe on the rights and liberties of our citizens."

This confirmation process will be a test for Roberts. But it will also test the Senate. Hopefully, the chamber's members -- including Feingold, himself -- will challenge John Roberts as aggressively as they should have Stephen Breyer.

John Roberts Meets the Senate

When Senator Arlen Specter, the Republican chairman of the judiciary committee, opened the confirmation hearings for John Roberts Jr., George W. Bush's nominee for Supreme Court chief justice, he pointed out that this session was occurring in the ornate Senate Caucus Room, the site of some of the most famous hearings in the republic's history: "the Titanic, Teapot Dome, the Army-McCarthy, Watergate, Iran-contra." Did Specter notice these past episodes all involved scandal or disaster? But there was no sense of foreboding in the air. As Roberts sat and smiled in the crowded room before the committee--with Ed Gillespie, a former Enron lobbyist and GOP chairman recruited by the White House to assist in the nomination process, at Roberts' side--it was clear that Roberts needed only get through a few days without drooling or disrobing to win the number-one judicial post in the nation. Little would matter. Not Roberts' answers--or lack thereof--to questions regarding his judicial philosophy or his views on privacy rights, presidential authority, or congressional power. Thus, the verbiage of the first day of the Roberts hearings--in which all the senators and the nominee delivered opening remarks--was mostly an academic exercise. There were grand statements about rights, judicial power, and the American experiment. Roberts talked about "infinite possibilities" conveyed by the "endless fields" of his native Indiana and vowed to be a judicial umpire, not to "pitch or bat." But these scripted statements of little intrinsic value did outline the political stratagems of each side.

In his opening remarks, Specter raised several pointed topics. He whacked the Supreme Court for voting to undermine congressional prerogatives, recalling that the court ruled against the Americans with Disability Act in 2001 (on a 5-4 split) and then four years later ruled for it (on a 5-4 split). He criticized the court for invalidating portions of legislation designed to protect women against violence--a ruling in which the court claimed Congress' "method of reasoning" was defective. Specter declared he would not ask Roberts whether he would overrule Roe v. Wade, but he said he would ask whether Roberts believes the Constitution contains a right to privacy. But, of course, there was no implied threat: say the wrong thing, and I might vote against you. Specter did not even say he expected candid replies: "Senators have the right to ask whatever questions they choose, and you, Judge Roberts, have the right to answer as you see fit--or not answer." (Nod, nod, wink, wink?) In fact, most GOP senators defined the central issue of the hearing as how far committee members (meaning, Democrats) could go in grilling a judicial nominee. Democrats responded by saying that with so much at stake it was vital to press Roberts on a host of crucial subjects. Senator Patrick Leahy, the senior Democrat on the committee, devoted most of his remarks to the premise that an "open and honest public conversation with the nominee...is an important part of this process."

But process never gets a political side too far. (How many Americans are inspired by the Democrats' demand that Roberts shares his views on past Supreme Court decisions?) The critical question is whether Roberts is good or bad for the United States. Democrats spent too much time on countering the Republican strategy (questioning the questioning of judicial nominees) and not enough on dissecting what's already known about Roberts. Senator Ted Kennedy gave an impassioned speech on the importance of various individual rights. He only devoted one sentence to challenging Roberts' record: "There are real and serious reasons to be deeply concerned about Judge Roberts' record. Many of his past statements and writings raise questions about his commitment to equal opportunity and the bipartisan remedies we have adopted in the past."

In perhaps the only highlight of the day (for depressed Democrats), Senator Joseph Biden went further. He first enthusiastically derided constitutional literalism and defended the idea of a living and adaptable Constitution that recognizes a right to privacy and that permits the federal government to "act as a shield to protect the powerless against major economic interest" and to "stamp out discrimination." Then he declared, "Judge, if I looked only at what you've said and written in the past, I'd feel compelled to vote no. You dismissed the Constitution's protection of privacy as a 'so-called right,' you derided agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission that combat corporate misconduct as 'constitutional anomalies,' and you dismissed 'gender discrimination' as merely a--and I quote--'perceived problem.'"


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Most of the Democrats used their handful of minutes to lay the foundation for their questions to come rather than to define Roberts as a poor choice. Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, came close to accusing Roberts of being an ideologue but said that would be determined by how--and whether--Roberts answers Schumer's queries: "If you refuse to talk about already decided cases, the burden is on you...to figure out a way, in plain English, to help us determine whether you will be a conservative--but mainstream conservative--chief justice, or an ideologue....You told me that you are not an ideologue and that you share my 'aversion' to ideologues; yet you have been embraced by some of the most extreme ideologues in America, like the leader of Operation Rescue [an antiabortion outfit]. That gives rise to a question. What do they know that we don't know?"

The problem, said a former Democratic Senate aide, "is that Democrats feel responsible and actually want to get more information before expressing a position, and the Republicans have already made up their minds." But that's only a partial (if not self-serving) explanation. By all accounts, most Democratic senators have already made a decision on the preexisting record--the slate is not blank--and most have concluded that Roberts ought not to be confirmed. So why worry and speechify about all the process stuff instead of the main point? "The Democrats want to come out, talk about their ideals and look affirmative and not appear defensive," one leader of the Roberts opposition told me. "Some were even mad at Biden for so clearly saying that he found Roberts wanting."

With Republicans in lockstep on message--Roberts is a great pick and nominees should not be pushed too hard--the Democrats were establishing a hard task for themselves: beat the GOPers on the process fight (which few Americans give a damn about) and then trying to deploy strategic questions that will yield answers--or non-answers--that demonstrate Roberts warrants opposition. Why not frame the real debate--or attempt to do so--from the get-go? Would that be too confrontational for them? Not sufficiently senatorial? In any event, it was a miscalculation. True, the game was over before it began. But it seemed that the Democrats lost the chance to fight the best fight possible.

The Democrats cannot stop Roberts. Consequently, they can only have one political objective: to boost the number of no votes. This would allow them to claim their party is the one that cares about privacy rights. Moreover, a large no vote would signal the White House that the Democrats might be able to rough up--perhaps even stop--Bush's next Supreme Court pick if that nominee is a rightwing extremist (to use the term of choice). Bush, as is his way, probably would not pay much heed to such a signal. But the Democrats at least have to try--especially since their base supporters expect them to do all that is possible to beat back Bush's effort to steer the federal judiciary to the right.

As he kicked off the hearings, Specter said, "Now we face the biggest challenge of the year--and perhaps the biggest challenge of the decade." If only. With the Senate Republicans in love with Roberts and opposed to any serious grilling, there's not much challenge at hand. When the Democrats hurl tough questions at Roberts on Tuesday (and maybe Wednesday), it will only be for the record. In his opening statement, Specter noted that Roberts once wrote a memo in which he suggested that a justice's tenure should be limited to 15 years, given that life expectancy had become much longer than when the Constitution was drafted. Specter said he might question Roberts about this. Lets hope so. It seems a good time to consider that proposal.