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Berlusconi Backfires

Following up on John Nichols' post about Silvio Berlusconi's likely election defeat, I'm posting a dispatch from our ace Washington intern Cora Currier, who lived in Italy and, unlike the rest of us, speaks fluent Italian.

 

Berlusconi's parading as Bush's buddy at the start of the Iraq war was the least of his problems. Italy's slick, perpetually tanned billionaire prime minister will likely lose the election because, after five years of scandals and corruption, Italians have had enough of his antics. Before the election he ceded to overwhelming popular opinion by promising to pull Italian troops from Iraq by the year's end, but it was too late to save face.

 

 

While Italy's economy floundered, Berlusconi, ranked the country's richest man by Forbes Magazine, was busy re-writing laws to avoid charges of tax-fraud, corruption and bribery. During the run-up to the election, supporters of opposition candidate Romano Prodi protested the inequality of TV time between the candidates. Little surprise: through various businesses, Berlusconi controls an alleged 90 percent of the national media. Last week Berlusconi announced to supporters at a rally in Naples: "we will win because we are not coglioni," using a vulgar term literally meaning "testicles" to paint the opposition as "assholes." The next day, T-shirts were seen on the streets of Rome reading Io Sono un Coglione: "I am an asshole." Looks there are quite a few of them in Italy these days…

 

Italy Votes for Withdrawal

George Bush's second closest comrade in the neoconservative "coalition of the willing" occupiers of Iraq has been swept from power. And that means that Italy will soon withdraw its troops from the coalition and Iraq.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who after British Prime Minister Tony Blair was the strongest supporter of Bush's policies in Europe, and perhaps the world, was swept from office in voting that ended Monday. Berlusconi will be replaced by Romano Prodi, whose center-left Olive coalition promised in its manifesto to withdraw Italian troops from Iraq.

Exit polls for the state broadcaster RAI gave Prodi's coalition of liberals, socialists and communists a majority in both houses of parliament.

Opposition to the war was not the only factor in the defeat of Berlusconi, whose five-year tenure as prime minister was characterized by corruption and totalitarian tactics, and whose reelection campaign degenerated into crude bluster and obscenity. But the prime minister's alliance with Bush, whose approval ratings are almost as low in Italy as in the U.S., certainly played a role.

Prodi's says the withdrawal of Italian troops will be completed "in the technical time necessary," following consultation with Iraqi authorities. That will go over well with the Italians who marched in the millions against Berlusconi's decision to send his country's troops to fight George Bush's war.

When Will Democrats Break With Bush?

In light of the news that President Bush authorized a top Administration aide to use previously classified information as part of an orchestrated political attack on a prominent critic of the Administration, a radio host asked me over the weekend: "What will it take to get Republicans to break with Bush? How bad will things have to get before they realize that he's a disaster for the country?"

I answered that, in small but significant ways, Republicans have been breaking with Bush for some time now. When the President travels to states around the country to pump up support for his war, he often does so without the accompaniment of GOP members of Congress who find that they are otherwise engaged on the days that the Commander in Chief drops by their hometowns. While most leading Republicans refuse to admit as much publicly, they are putting more and more distance between themselves and a President whose approval rating has dropped to Nixon-in-Watergate depths.

When Congress voted recently on whether to extend the Patriot Act, some of the loudest "no" votes came from conservative Republicans such as Don Young of Alaska and Butch Otter of Idaho, who argued with Democratic US Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin that the legislation was an assault on basic liberties and Constitutional standards. As but a handful of Senate Democrats and key House Democrats such as Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel were lining up with the Bush Administration to curtail civil liberties, Texas Republican Ron Paul, perhaps the most consistent critic of the Patriot Act in the House, complained that "one prominent Democrat opined on national television that 'most of the 170-page Patriot Act is fine,' but that it needs some fine tuning. He then stated that he opposed the ten-year reauthorization bill on the grounds that Americans should not have their constitutional rights put on hold for a decade. His party's proposal, however, was to reauthorize the Patriot Act for only four years, as though a shorter moratorium on constitutional rights would be acceptable! So much for the opposition party and its claim to stand for civil liberties."

Perhaps even more significant than GOP opposition to the Patriot Act is the opposition from some of the most conservative Republicans in the House--including Paul, Walter Jones and Howard Coble of North Carolina, and John Duncan of Tennessee--to the war in Iraq. These Republicans, among others, are now among the most ardent and articulate Congressional critics of the Administration's policies in the Middle East.

Last week, Paul, Jones and a moderate Republican, Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, joined with three Democrats--Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, Ike Skelton of Missouri and Marty Meehan of Massachusetts-–in a push to get the House to hold a daylong debate on the war, declaring that: "Americans deserve an open and honest debate about the future of US policy in Iraq by their Representatives in Congress." While the debate demand of these Republicans stalwarts was stymied by their party leadership in the House, it is notable that House Republican leaders chose not to block a March 16 amendment by US Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, which put the House on record as opposing the construction of permanent US bases in Iraq. The decision not to fight Lee's amendment, which passed by an overwhelming voice vote, was a tacit acknowledgment by GOP leaders of the reality, pointed up in a recent University of Maryland Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll, that 60 percent of Republican voters oppose a permanent US presence in that country.

Indeed, while a predictable 80 percent of Democrats support moves to begin withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, according to the PIPA poll, a rather more remarkable 52 percent of Republicans now want Washington to begin bringing the troops home.

Although their President and Vice President and a few key Congressional leaders may still be clinging to neoconservative fantasies, Republicans who actually care about their country-–as well as Republicans who care about the political viability of their party at a time when a new Associated Press/Ipsos poll finds that Americans would prefer a Democrat-led House by the widest margin in recent history, 49 percent to 33 percent-–are indeed beginning to make meaningful breaks with Bush.

So the question of the moment is not "What will it take to get Republicans to break with Bush?" The question is: "What will it take to get Congressional Democrats to break with Bush?"

Despite mounting evidence not just of the President's unpopularity but of his reckless disregard for the law-–which was again confirmed by last week's news of former Cheney chief of staff I. "Scooter" Libby's testimony that Bush authorized distribution of previously classified data as part of a concerted effort to undermine the credibility of former Ambassador Joe Wilson, who had revealed that the "case" for going to war in Iraq was based on false premises-–most Congressional Democrats continue to resist calls to hold the President accountable.

An American Research Group poll conducted in March found that 70 percent of Democrats, 42 percent of independents and 29 percent of Republicans surveyed favor censuring Bush for authorizing wiretaps of Americans within the United States without obtaining court orders. Yet Feingold's motion to censure Bush has drawn just two Democratic co-sponsors in the Senate, Barbara Boxer of California and Tom Harkin of Iowa.

The same American Research Group poll found that 61 percent of Democrats, 47 percent of independents and 18 percent of Republicans are supportive of moves to impeach Bush. Yet Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has attracted just 33 co-sponsors for his resolution calling for the creation of "a select committee to investigate the administration's intent to go to war before Congressional authorization, manipulation of pre-war intelligence, encouraging and countenancing torture, retaliating against critics, and to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment." Most Democratic members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, along with Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, have signed on. But House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and others in leadership positions remain aggressively critical of the initiative.

Where, at the very least, is the united Democratic support for Representative Maurice Hinchey's call for the expansion of Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into White House leaks-–which produced the indictment of Libby and last week's revelation about the role of the President and Vice President-–to examine the motivations of all of those involved in the White House's political assault on Joe Wilson? Hinchey, a New York Democrat, has been on the case since last summer, when he got thirty-nine other House members to sign a letter he wrote to Fitzgerald calling for the expanded investigation. As Hinchey says, "Justice will not be served until all of these matters are fully addressed in the courts and in the Congress."

Hinchey's right. But the fundamental truth of American politics remains that justice will only be served when the opposition party moves, as a united force encouraged and supported by its leadership in the House and Senate, to demand accountability from this Administration. For most Democrats, that will demand something they have not yet been willing to make: a break from Bush. And Democrats had better be quick about making that break, unless they want their Republicans colleagues to beat them to the punch.

Pro-Immigrant Marches Surging Nationwide

For the second time in two weeks an American city was rocked Sunday by a pro-immigrant demonstration of undeniably historic magnitude. As many as a half-million people, wearing white and waving American flags crammed downtown Dallas. A similar, but smaller, outpouring took place in nearby Forth Worth. Scores of thousands of others also came into the streets in Salt Lake City, Miami, St. Paul, Des Moines, Boise, Salem, Detroit and San Diego (with one report saying the crowd neared 100,000 in the latter city).

The Dallas demonstration –- which mushroomed to ten times the size anticipated by authorities -- rivaled the scope of the so-called "Gran Marcha" in Los Angeles two weeks ago – an event that to many observers marked the birth of a new civil rights movement. The L.A. demo was also the largest in the history of the city -- perhaps in all of the western United States.

And on Monday even more massive pro-immigration demonstrations are scheduled for 140 more American cities in a national day of protest. Once again Los Angeles is predicted to be the epicenter of the day's activities. As many as a quarter million of a people are expected there as well as an equal number in New York and Washington DC-- perhaps a total of two million or more nationwide.

The demonstrators are protesting a draconian enforcement measure approved last December by the House and are instead calling for liberalized reform, which would legalize migrants already working in the U.S. and provide expanded channels for future legal immigration.

"It is the largest national mobilization of immigrants in the history of this country," Juan Carlos Ruiz, coordinator of the National Capital Immigrant Coalition, the umbrella group organizing the event in Washington told the Los Angeles Times. "The goal is to show Congress and the media and the White House that we can organize ourselves, because we have not been very well organized in the past."

The protests come just days after the US Senate failed to vote on compromise legislation that would have allowed a majority of the 12 million "illegals" already living in the US to come out of the shadows and normalize their status. Though a bi-partisan coalition of more than 60 Senators supported the measure, partisan political jockeying torpedoed the vote. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Arlen Specter (R-Penn) and Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy have both vowed that after the current two-week recess the Senate will come back and pass a similar measure. Kennedy is scheduled to be among the speakers at Monday's rally in Washington DC

At the same time, however, the Republican leadership in the House is still promising to block any guest worker or legalization program.

Meanwhile, both parties are no doubt closely watching the movement burgeoning before their eyes. And many observers are predicting that the startling outbreak of nationwide street rallies will pressure Congress toward reaching some landmark legislation sooner rather than later. Neither party has any significant influence over the course of the demonstrations.

Sunday and Monday's protests have been organized by a broad coalition of interests – ranging from Latino rights organizations, the Catholic Church and Latino-dominated unions including the Service Employees International Union and HERE-UNITE (representing hotel, restaurant and clothing workers). Spanish-language media are acting as lubricants to the protests, rallying their readers and listeners to the cause.

While the overwhelming majority of demonstrators are Latinos, there has also been a significant presence of Asian immigrants. One out of four Korean immigrants in the U.S. lack proper legal status. And news reports say that hundreds of Koreans are planning to attend Monday's demonstration on the capitol mall.

During one of Sunday's protests, demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama trekked along the same route used by civil rights activists in the 1960's and rallied at a park featuring a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. "We've got to get back in touch with the Statue of Liberty," said the Rev. Lawton Higgs, a United Methodist pastor and activist. "We've got to get back in touch with the civil rights movement, because that's what this is about."

No Turning Back

This week The Nation's lead editorial argues that progressives should join forces with immigrant advocates to create a broad social movement placing the rights of immigrants at the heart of a struggle for economic justice. The best and most immediate way to do that is to support the April 10 Day of Action for Immigrant Justice.

Organized by a coalition of immigrant, labor, faith, civil rights and business groups as well as the Center for Community Change , this nationwide series of protests is expected to take place in hundreds of different locations coast to coast. The goal: "To stop anti-immigrant legislation from becoming law and to pass real, comprehensive immigration reform that provides a clear path to citizenship, unites families, and ensures workplace and civil rights protections for all."

Here's How You Can Help:

Go to an April 10 event. Click here to find an event near you.

Sign the coalition's petition for immigrant rights.

Make a donation to support the work of the April 10 activities and subsequent related organizing. Your tax-deductible contribution will go to the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, a project of the Center for Community Change.

Let your elected reps know that you want them to support a comprehensive and inclusive reform bill.


Related Link: Read Marc Cooper's latest Notion post for good evidence that Harry Reid isn't reading The Nation's edits.

Thin Reid: Harry KO's Border Reform

The perhaps fatal collapse Friday of a Senate compromise on sweeping and liberalized immigration reform was, in itself, not totally unpredictable.

What might astound some, however, is what appears to be the ignominious role in the snafu played by none other than the Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid.

Even though a bi-partisan, majority coalition of 63 Senators had rather miraculously agreed on a compromise measure which would have been a significant step forward in much-needed reform, a final vote was scuttled at the last moment -- most likely killing off reform for the foreseeable future.

The non-partisan but Democrat-friendly National Immigration Forum was bitterly blunt in spelling out the reasons why:

There's plenty of blame to go around. The White House could have played a stronger role, and the Majority Leader could have been more insistent on reigning in the hawks in his party seemingly intent on delaying or derailing the process. But in the end, we cannot escape the conclusion that the Democratic Senate leadership was more interested in keeping the immigration issue alive in the run up to mid-terms than in enacting immigration reform legislation.

The fiasco in the Senate Friday reminds us that while the Bush administration is one of the worst in memory, the overall dysfunction of the American political system overflows the simple party divide.

Read the whole discouraging story here.

 

Give 'em Hell Harry!

As his approval ratings plummet, Bush has started attending meetings, town halls and local forums with real people. (Isn't this what presidents are supposed to do? Reading some of the news coverage,you'd think Bush was a man of courage for forsaking handpicked, scripted audiences.)

So there was Bush in Charlotte, North Carolina last night--for one of these newfangled, unscripted forums. That's where 61-year old Charlotte real estate broker Harry Taylor stood up to the President.

It's worth repeating what Taylor had to say: "While I listen to you talk about freedom, I see you assert your right to tap my telephone, to arrest me and hold me without charges, to try to preclude me frombreathing clean air and drinking clean water and eating safe food. If I were a woman, you'd like to restrict my opportunity to make a choice... about whether I can abort a pregnancy... What I wanted to say to you is that--in my lifetime, I have never felt more ashamed of, nor more frightened, by my leadership in Washington, including the presidency. And I would hope from time to time that you have the humility and the grace to be ashamed of youself... I also want to say I really appreciate the courtesy of allowing me to speak... That is part of what this country is about."

News reports tell us that last night's audience was mostly supportive of the President. Maybe so. But Taylor's statement--almost a cry from the heart of an American upset about what he sees happening to a country he loves--may better reflect the mood in North Carolina, a state Bush twice carried by wide margins. A new poll by a conservative Raleigh think tank found only 46% approve of his performance, while 42% support his handling of the war in Iraq.

House Republicans: Bring Back DeLay

Oh, how House Republicans must miss Tom DeLay. There have been a series of embarrassments for the House leadership since DeLay stepped down as Majority Leader in September. The decision to pull their own 2007 budget from consideration on the House floor yesterday "was the latest and clearest illustration of the Republicans' difficulties in holding lawmakers together with a crucial election approaching," the New York Times wrote.

The aforementioned budget would extend Bush's costly tax cuts, add $3 trillion to the national debt over five years, and cut billions of dollars for education, job training and veterans health care. When conservative Republicans tried to enact even harsher budget rules limiting Congress's ability to control emergency spending for war and natural disasters, powerful House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis balked, dooming the budget for now.

The conventional narrative in Washington has been reversed. Democrats stood firm as Republicans fell apart. The so-called "party of ideas" have none, or at least can no longer agree on what they are.

Even DeLay concurs. "We don't have an agreed agenda," he told reporters this week. "Breaking up our leadership has taken its toll."

$13,700 an Hour

Last Sunday, the New York Times reported that--for the first time--a full-time worker earning minimum wage cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in America at market rates. That means more and more people like Michelle Kennedy--a former Senate page and author of Without a Net: Middle Class and Homeless (with Kids) in America--are finding themselves homeless and living out of their cars.

At a town hall meeting in Ohio last Saturday, Representative Sherrod Brown of Ohio, a staunch advocate for social and economic rights--he and Bernie Sanders are the two best candidates running for Senate in 2006--railed against stagnant wages' contribution to economic hardship. "It is unacceptable that someone can work full-time--and work hard--and not be able to lift their family out of poverty." He blasted a system where a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $10,500 annually, while "last year the CEO of Wal-Mart earned $3,500 an hour. The CEO of Halliburton earned about $8,300 an hour. And the CEO of ExxonMobil earned about $13,700 an hour."

This past weekend Robert Kuttner argued in the Boston Globe that while people are blaming undocumented workers for driving down wages, the real villains are "the people running the government, who have made sure that the lions' share of the productivity gains go to the richest 1 percent of Americans. With different tax, labor, health, and housing policies, native-born workers and immigrants alike could get a fairer share of our productive economy."

Kuttner points to Census data showing that "median household income fell 3.8 percent, or $1,700, from 1999 to 2004...during a period when average productivity rose 3 percent per year." And while income is falling, working people are increasingly squeezed. Costs for housing, healthcare, education and childcare rose 46 percent between 1991 and 2002, according to economist Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute.

And the situation is getting worse. Look at the Delphi Corporation's moves as reported in the Washington Post on Saturday. The company asked a bankruptcy judge to void its union contracts so it could lower worker wages and benefits. CEO Steve Miller played the ever-reliable global competition card saying, "At the end of the day, Delphi must be competitive in the global marketplace."

But as Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University, makes clear, this new tactic will further erode labor's power in the workplace. "What in our laws and in our democracy gives a bankruptcy judge the right to take away freedom of association and collective bargaining?" Bronfenbrenner asked. "Bankruptcy judges should not have that power. Now they do."

In the current climate--with tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans; a minimum wage frozen for eight years and a GOP-dominated Congress; deterioration of labor's power in the workplace; and corporate-authored free-trade agreements that exacerbate these trends--it is heartening to hear Sherrod Brown make the case that "a hard day's work should mean a fair day's pay." But where are the other Democratic leaders who should be standing by his side?

The Democratic Party needs to regain its moral compass, its heart and soul. Sounding an alarm on this economic catastrophe befalling so many Americans is what heart and soul is all about.