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Iraq Divides Clinton and Obama in Electability War

Now that John McCain is the presumptive Republican nominee, the race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is increasingly focused on who can beat him.

Team Obama is psyched about several hypothetical "head-to-head" surveys – which are often unreliable – that show him faring much better against the hawkish Arizona Senator. The trend is evident in a battery of recent polls, and Obama aides have been blasting reporters with a CNN segment on the results. So Clinton dispatched her top aides to discuss the darker side of electability this week. Pollster Mark Penn made Hillary's case in a conference call and 1,100-word memo, but since current data does not support her electability, he issued predictions instead. His five key points were:

 

The GOP Attack Machine Will Redefine the Democratic Candidate; Hillary Has Withstood That Process.

 

Sen. McCain Will Run on National Security; Hillary Wins That Argument.

Sen. Obama's Negatives Will Rise; Hillary's Are Already Factored In.

The Resiliency of Sen. Obama's Coalition Will Be Tested; Hillary's Coalition Is Stronger.

Current Poll Numbers Don't Tell the Story of What Will Happen: Sen. Obama Routinely Underperforms While Hillary Overperforms. (emphasis added)

 

Plenty of pollsters are known for bluster over data, so maybe Penn should get candor points for not even mentioning numbers in his five points. In a charitable comparison of the campaigns' arguments, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza concludes that "the central difference in the electability appeals by the two campaigns is temporal." You know, like one appeal is based on today's data, and the other is based on a crystal ball. Cillizza continues:

 

The Obama campaign argues that the way to best understand who is the more electable is to look at current polling and past results to see who leads the likely Republican nominee and who is better able to lure crucial independents to the Democratic cause. The present is what matters, says Obama. For Clinton, it's the future that's the issue. Sure, they argue, Obama may be ahead right now, but Republicans have only begun to define him, a process that would strip away much of his independent support and leave him on the losing end of a race against McCain.

 

But wait -- for the vast majority of this campaign, Clinton aides touted her huge lead in past and current polls as proof of her "inevitability." Most independent pollsters and journalists swallowed that line, reporting items like this: "The conclusion drawn by the polling experts appears to be: Forget about Iowa being close, Clinton's inevitable, she's going to be the Democratic nominee." (That's from December.)

So at a minimum, reporters and pollsters must acknowledge that the Clinton Campaign has abandoned the case it pushed for over a year. Instead, it is now asking everyone to trust their predictions over current polls, past polls or their past arguments. We can't just ignore a massive shift in the central political argument for their candidate.

But that doesn't mean they are completely wrong, either.

There are two key issues in the "new" Clinton case: First, their explanation of the huge favorability gap is basically correct, and our political class should digest that reality. Second, their national security argument is wrong, and it offers an arresting reminder of the political and substantive problems with Clinton's foreign policy.

Penn told reporters that Obama's favorability ratings are temporarily inflated:

...time and time again the GOP attack machine redefine[s] the Democratic candidate. Hillary has withstood this process. She's lived through it. The attack machine has been built and honed over decades – it is formidable.. she has withstood this type of attack...

 

From a pure PR perspective, this is undeniably true. Clinton's negative ratings stem from a decade of sustained, presidential campaign level attacks on both her and her family. Obama has yet to receive such attacks -- he did not even face a viable opponent in his Senate race -- and his toughest Right Wing assault so far was an unfunded effort to lie about his Christian faith. If he is the nominee, sure, he could run a unifying campaign drawing a larger majority than Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter ever built. But his negatives would still rise like every other Democratic nominee in the modern era. If reporters and voters don't get that now, however, and Obama wins the nomination, then get ready for a spate of summer hand-wringing about the "surprising" spike in his negatives.

Then there is the security argument, where the Clinton Campaign reveals it is ready to repeat the mistakes of Kerry 04. On this front, Penn's memo is breathtaking:

Based on what they know of her and her experience, voters believe Hillary is fully ready to be commander in chief. She will be strong and right...The Republicans will not be able to play the national security card against Hillary Clinton, like they are now doing against Senator Obama, and that makes her a fundamentally stronger candidate against John McCain. (emphasis added)

 

Got that? The campaign that "knows the Republican attack machine better than anyone" actually thinks their candidate is magically immune to the GOP's first line of attack.

Of course, either candidate will face a withering assault on security, "patriotism" and the Democratic passion for "protecting of rights of people who want to kill us" -- as a Fox pundit put the question to President Bush this weekend. The key difference is that Clinton is wedded to the "yes-but arguments" that failed Kerry. (The Nation's Ari Berman has more on this today in "Clinton Running Like It's 2002.") Take her Iraq defense in the last debate:

 

I believe that it is abundantly clear that the case that was outlined on behalf of going to the resolution -- not going to war, but going to the resolution -- was a credible case. I was told personally by the White House that they would use the resolution to put the inspectors in. I worked with Senator Levin to make sure we gave them all the intelligence so that we would know what's there. Some people now think that this was a very clear, open-and-shut case. We bombed them for days in 1998 because Saddam Hussein threw out inspectors. We had evidence that they had a lot of bad stuff for a very long time, which we discovered after the first Gulf War. Knowing that he was a megalomaniac, knowing he would not want to compete for attention with Osama bin Laden, there were legitimate concerns about what he might do. So I think I made a reasoned judgment. Unfortunately the person who actually got to execute the policy did not. (emphasis added; transcribed by The New York Times.)

 

So even today, she sees a "credible case" for the war, but she is also against the war. She made a reasoned judgment, but Bush did not. And when facing Iraq criticism, she mentions Osama bin Laden.

Yet for this entire campaign, while many focused on Obama's style and charisma, he advocated the policy and political imperative of challenging the fundamental premises of neoconservative foreign policy. He says it in every stump speech. (It's a huge applause line.) He hammered on the point in his speech on Super Tuesday -- an important choice since the televised address was one of his largest media opportunities to reach new voters:

 

And if I am your nominee, my opponent will not be able to say that I voted for the war in Iraq, because I didn't -- (cheers) -- or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran, because I haven't -- (cheers, applause) -- or that I support the Bush-Cheney doctrine of not talking to leaders we don't like, because I profoundly disagree with that approach. (Cheers, applause.) And he will not be able to say that I wavered on something as fundamental as whether or not it's okay for America to use torture, because it's never okay. That is the choice in this election. (Transcribed by The Federal News Service.)

 

That is not only the most powerful argument for winning -- providing a strong, clear contrast instead of the Democratic doubletalk of 2004 -- it also prioritizes policy leadership on the campaign trail, not blurry pandering. Even apart from Iraq, when is the last time you heard a top Democrat lean in to confront Republicans on torture and Iran, rather discussing the issues on defense?

Most of the time, electability is a parlor game for insiders, who shift from (irrelevant) past polling to the titillating speculation of (even less reliable) projection polling. But this week's debate could be more meaningful, since voters can weigh Clinton's blunt claim that her war record would fare better in November. The Clintons have long eyed McCain warily -- the former president even said he "might be the most electable" Republican in a December interview on ABC. (The clip is still the second most popular item out of 166 videos on McCain's YouTube channel.) And Clinton was probably right.

Now Democrats are girding for a battle against a formidable but flawed political figure. McCain's shortcomings are well known, as an unrelenting advocate of the failed Rumsfeld plan in Iraq and the failed Bush approach to global terror. Given a clear alternative, Americans just might elect someone else.

Update: Nation reader SRJENKINS debunks another line from Penn:

 

Current Poll Numbers Don't Tell the Story of What Will Happen: Sen. Obama Routinely Underperforms While Hillary Overperforms.

 

Is going from the inevitable candidate to almost being out of the race called "overperformance" these days? Let me go check my dictionary. Or going from, "Is this guy serious?" to contender, underperformance?

 

 

Sherrod Brown on How to Win in Ohio

In 2006, Sherrod Brown ran on an anti-war populist economic message and won in towns across Ohio long written-off by Democrats. On March 4, the Democratic primary will be held in the state, with Obama possibly looking to continue a streak of victories, while Clinton faces as close to a must-win situation as we are likely to see in the fight for the nomination.

While Senator Brown has said he won't endorse either candidate before the Ohio primary, he's in close contact with both candidates, and in an interview with me he spoke candidly about trade, globalization, and lessons on how to win in his state. To paraphrase, it's about economic populism, stupid. And as Obama battles to make inroads with the white and Latino working-class, and Clinton distances herself from the trade policies of her husband's administration, Ohio is there for the taking.

Here then is the transcript of my conversation with Senator Brown:

Q: How are you approaching any endorsement decision?

I will not endorse before the Ohio primary. I'm weighing what my state does, that's certainly part of it. Also, my conversations with both Barack and Hillary, and with Governor Sebelius calling for Barack, and with Bill Clinton calling for Hillary, and Dick Durbin – all the people who have called for them, in addition to talking directly with the candidates… [we] talk about trade, talk about a populist, progressive message in Ohio, talk about privatization and anti-privatization, and all the things they need to do around tax and trade policy.

Both of them are obviously significantly better than Bush Republicans, McCain. They're close. I've talked to Barack a lot about his Patriot Corporation Act, which is not trade per se, but it's certainly part of the economic package around globalization. The Patriot Corporation Act has not gotten the attention that I would hope it would. But, basically it says that if you play by the rules, if you pay decent wages, health benefits, pension; do your production here; don't resist unionization on neutral card check, then you will be designated a "Patriot Corporation" and you will get tax advantages and some [preference] on government contracts. Jan Schakowsky first came to me… I co-sponsored and worked on it with her in 2005 or 2006. And Barack has been a sponsor of it in the Senate. Hillary is not on it as of now, but those are the kinds of things I want to see them talk about and do and I am hopeful – and pretty much expect – that they will talk about those issues in Ohio.

Q: Have you had a chance to talk to Sen. Clinton about the Patriot Corporation Act?

Yes, I did some time, back – early, like October or November. I've talked to her since about other things, more specifically, trade. And Barack I've talked to within the last week both on trade and on the Patriot Corporation Act. It does two things, the Patriot Corporation Act and better trade policy: it helps win Ohio and helps them govern in the right way. I think you can really take the country in a very different direction building a progressive message around that kind of economic issue – the Patriot Corporation Act and trade. We won 32 or 33 more counties than John Kerry did mostly in small towns in rural Ohio where they were very responsive to a populist progressive message. One town in particular – this is something that just happened – there's a company called American Standard, they make toilets, plumbing fixtures, you'll see them in near any public restroom anywhere. They're in Tiffin, Ohio, town of 20,000. They've just announced back around 3 months ago, the closing of the plant. It was bought by some investors, they're moving offshore, they're honoring the union contract as far as they have to, which is those who already have their 30 years. If you have less than 30 you're pretty screwed--they give you something, but you can't get to the 30 years because they close the plant. And the company that came in and bought it was Bain Capital, Mitt Romney's firm…. These investors come in, take millions of dollars out of the company, and you know, it's pension and healthcare. And those are going on all over the country. And this is a town of 20,000. I carried that county, Kerry didn't. They had already laid off some people…. It's those kinds of situations that cause small town Ohio to vote for somebody like me regardless of the social issues.

Whenever Hillary says the right thing about trade, the Washington Post just slams her. It's unbelievable. I met with the Post editorial board back in about November or December, and I said, kind of joking with them, "Do you have a full-time person, every time Hillary says anything that you don't like on trade, you like automatically write an editorial within 24 hours?" They kind of laughed and said, "Yeah, we have a full-time person on it." But the newspapers – I got one newspaper endorsement in the state of the big nine papers. It was the only paper that's been a bit more even-handed on trade…. They're gonna get slapped around by the newspapers for this. Particularly Hillary… Hillary's clearly moved way away from the old Clinton [administration] position, but the newspapers want to slap her every time she speaks out about that. Because they think it's all for political reasons. I really don't. I think that both of them genuinely see the problems of globalization. I think they understand that, I don't think their solutions are quite strong enough yet – either of them. But I think they're on the way and they're getting close, and I think we'll see more of that kind of growth as they focus on these kinds of issues in the Midwest now.

Q: So it sounds like you think the candidates are doing a decent job but there's definitely room for improvement?

Yeah, I wish they'd go a little further but they're getting there. And I wish they would emphasize it more. You know, again, they emphasize it, the media will attack them on it, I understand that. Most of the mainstream media, that's what they do. You know, they attacked me, and so what? I won by well into double-digits, in a slightly Republican state, against an incumbent with this message. Granted, it was a good year, and the Republican Party's in trouble, but that was big part of the reason. My numbers compared to Kerry were not a whole lot better in the big Metropolitan counties… but in the small counties I ran ahead of him by 10-15 points. Just looking at that, there has to be a reason, and the reason was a populist economic message.

Q: What are some of the specifics you would like to see them speaking more openly about, being more aggressive about?

They should certainly talk about the Patriot Corporation Act. I think they should strongly speak out against the Columbian Trade Deal. And they should call for a time out – as Hillary has, perhaps Barack has, I haven't heard – call for a time-out on trade agreements. I have a bill I'm about to introduce to set up a Commission – both parties, both Houses – to look back at what we've done in trade, and decide which ones we renegotiate. And work to renegotiate. And what we learn from that, and what we move forward on. I know what I think we should do, but I think we need to build a better consensus in Congress to get there. It's labor and environmental standards, that's a start. It's also stopping the shift of power from governments to corporations. Part of the privatization effort that we have in these trade agreements… we're giving away our sovereignty to corporations in terms of environmental law, food safety law, labor law, allowing these companies to overturn democratically arrived at, democratically determined, health and safety rules and laws. That's where I wish [Barack and Hillary] would go when they start to get more specific.

Q: How much are we able to reopen and renegotiate?

That's unclear. I mean, the first thing we do is stop. But we are such a huge, lucrative market. If you make the analogy to a business. If you have a customer that's 40 percent of your sales you're gonna pay a lot of attention to that customer. We are 35 percent still of China's sales, China's exports, that's the most recent number I've seen…. With Mexico, we're maybe 80, I don't know what percent exactly. But we're important enough to these countries that we can use our market – not to exploit them – but, in fact, to lift their standards up and to lift their standard of living up. And to make those countries more open towards unionization, and more environmentally responsible. And that's what we've never done, of course.

Does Facebook Own You Forever?

In a recent feature article on Facebook and the "new privacy," I stressed how the company's invasive data policy seizes lots of information from users, even after they quit the site:

 

Even if users terminate their membership, pictures of them posted by others remain online. But users can't really quit, anyway. Like guests at the Hotel California, people who check out of Facebook have a hard time leaving. Profiles of former members are preserved in case people want to reactivate their accounts. And all users' digital selves can outlive their creators. As the company's "terms of use" explain, profiles of deceased members are kept "active under a special memorialized status for a period of time determined by us to allow other users to post and view comments."

 

The issue has generally received far less media scrutiny than user revolts over programs that spread people's information, such as the "feed" controversy and protests against "social ads," though bloggers and social media observers have flagged this problem before. DavidNYC posted one of the more memorable pleas in December, "Delete My Bleeping Account, Facebook!"

Today the New York Times weighs in, with an excellent article by Maria Aspan:

 

Some users have discovered that it is nearly impossible to remove themselves entirely from Facebook, setting off a fresh round of concern over the popular social network's use of personal data. While the Web site offers users the option to deactivate their accounts, Facebook servers keep copies of the information in those accounts indefinitely. Indeed, many users who have contacted Facebook to request that their accounts be deleted have not succeeded in erasing their records from the network. "It's like the Hotel California," said Nipon Das, 34, a director at a biotechnology consulting firm in Manhattan, who tried unsuccessfully to delete his account this fall. "You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave." It took Mr. Das about two months and several e-mail exchanges with Facebook's customer service representatives to erase most of his information from the site, which finally occurred after he sent an e-mail threatening legal action. But even after that, a reporter was able to find Mr. Das's empty profile on Facebook and successfully sent him an e-mail message through the network.

 

That means the company is collecting potentially permanent digital dossiers for tens of millions of users, without their knowledge or consent. Set aside search engines, and Facebook is the third most popular website in the country. Over eight out of ten college students are registered on the site -- it's considered weird to be on campus without a Facebook profile nowadays. Yet despite its reach and remarkably aggressive data policies, few parents, universities or regulators have stepped up to consider what policies can protect the Facebook generation from Facebook.

Update: Facebook's Brandee Barker sent in a response to this post:

"There are two different ways to remove your information from Facebook. The first is to deactivate an account. Once a user deactivates the account, his or her profile becomes inaccessible on the main Facebook service, and the data is kept by Facebook only to allow easy reactivation. The second option is to delete the profile altogether. When a user deletes his or her profile, personal information -- such as name and all email addresses associated with the account -- is deleted from Facebook servers. If a user decides to join Facebook again, he or she would need to create a new profile. We are working to better explain the simple deactivation process, and to ease the deletion process for those who want their personal information removed from our servers.

 

 

The Edwards Primary

Barack Obama had planned to veer off the "Potomac Primary" campaign trail after his last rally in Baltimore tonight and fly to Chapel Hill for a private meeting with John Edwards. Scheduling conflicts scrapped that scheme, but count on Obama to make a meeting happen in short order.

Obama wants the former North Carolina senator's endorsement. Badly.

Why? Check this out:

On Super Tuesday, 415,000 Democratic primary and caucus voters chose John Edwards as their candidate for president. It is true that many of those votes came on "early ballots" that were cast before the former senator from North Carolina withdrew from the race. But hundreds of thousands of Democrats and independents who were motivated enough to go and vote on February 5 did so for Edwards, knowing full well that he was out of the running.

In Oklahoma, where Edwards might well have won the primary if he had stayed in the race, the former candidate won more than 10 percent of the vote. In several of the state's larger counties, the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president took second place, running ahead of either Obama or Hillary Clinton. In the state's 2nd and 3rd congressional districts, Edwards took 13 percent of the vote, narrowly missing the 15 percent threshold needed to secure delegates.

In California, Edwards won 170,050 votes for 4 percent of the total. And in at least one of the state's congressional districts he fell just short of the 15 percent threshold.

In Arizona, Edwards won 5 percent; in Tennessee, he took 4 percent.

In Louisiana, which voted on Saturday, Edwards continued to win as much as 5 percent of the vote in some congressional districts.

Does this matter? It did in Missouri, which gave Obama an essential win by just 9,997 votes. Edwards took 16,747 votes. Had the Edwards votes broken for Clinton, she might well have won another of the key battleground states on Super Tuesday.

Similarly, had Edwards votes flipped to Obama in a number of congressional districts across the country, the Illinois senator would have won more delegates to this summer's Democratic National Convention. Take the 28th District on New York state, where Clinton beat Obama by 509 votes. That gave her 3 delegates to 2 for Obama. But if the 691 Edwards votes in the district had gone to Obama, he would have had the 3 delegates to Clinton's 2.

Of course, no former candidate's endorsement can swing all of his or her supporters behind another contender.

But both the Clinton and Obama camps have come to recognize that a nod from Edwards could influence a significant number of his former (and in some cases continuing) backers. And the remaining candidates know that in a close race for the nomination -- after his Maine caucuses win on Sunday, Obama leads Clinton by 3 delegates -- an endorsement could be definitional.

This is especially true right now, as next Tuesday's big primary is in Wisconsin, a state where Edwards had the backing of Congressman David Obey, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and many key legislators and local officials.

So Clinton and Obama are making their moves.

Clinton rearranged her schedule to meet last week with Edwards in Chapel Hill. She then said while campaigning in Maine that, "There is a lot that John and I have in common... And I intend to ask John Edwards to be part of anything I do.. when I'm in the White House."

Clinton does not necessarily expect an Edwards endorsement. She wants him to stay out.

Obama wants him in.

So watch for veiled references from Obama -- think "Attorney General Edwards" -- about how much he wants to work with the former senator.

And when should we expect an endorsement -- or a formal decision to stay on the sidelines?

No doubt, there will have to be an Edwards-Obama meeting. But once that happens, expect a decision in short order. Edwards is not meeting with the candidates for fun. He knows that this is the moment when he matters most. He will move sooner rather than later.

A Campaign to Stop Stoning

Iranian judges apparently didn't get the memo about the moratorium onstoning issued in 2002 by Ayatollah Shahroudi, head of the judiciary.According to Amnesty International, nine women and two men arecurrently in prison awaiting this cruel and barbaric punishment, whichis usually meted out for sexual transgressions.

In May of 2006 a man and a woman were reportedly stoned in Mashhad and the government hasofficially confirmed the stoning on July 5, 2007 in the village ofAghche-kand of Jafar Kiani, convicted of "adultery" along withMokarrameh Ebrahimi, with whom he had two children. She has beensentenced to stoning also and is currently in prison with one of herchildren.

In the most recent case, two sisters, Zohreh and Azar Kabiri, havebeen sentenced to stoning for "adultery." (This sentence came afterthe ninety-nine lashes meted out for "inappropriate relations," which came aftera trial notable for its lack of due process.). Equality Now has the whole horrific story, with addresses of officials to address letterscalling for a ban on stoning and the decriminalization of "adultery."

The Iranian activist group Stop Stoning Forever has been pressing fora ban since the 2006 stonings. It was their network of volunteerlawyers, in fact, who identified the prisoners facing this punishment,and took up their cases. So far they have saved four women and one man;the sentence of another woman has been temporarily stayed.

The courage of these activists is breathtaking; several are currently underindictment for participating in a demonstration in support of women'srights. You can sign Stop Stoning Forever's online petition here.

Women Living Under Muslim laws has more information about the StopStoning campaign, and a sample letter about the case of the Kabirisisters.

Imagine 50 Million American Refugees

I'm an innumerate, but the figures on this -- the saddest story of our Iraq debacle -- are so large that even I can do the necessary computations. The population of the United States is now just over 300,000,000. The population of Iraq at the time of the U.S. invasion was perhaps in the 26-27 million range. Between March 2003 and today, a number of reputable sources place the total of Iraqis who have fled their homes -- those who have been displaced internally and those who have gone abroad -- at between 4.5 million and 5 million individuals. If you take that still staggering lower figure, approximately one in six Iraqis is either a refugee in another country or an internally displaced person.

Now, consider the equivalent in terms of the U.S. population. If Iraq had invaded the United States in March 2003 with similar results, in less than five years approximately 50 million Americans would have fled their homes, assumedly flooding across the Mexican and Canadian borders, desperately burdening weaker neighboring economies. It would be an unparalleled, even unimaginable, catastrophe. Consider, then, what we would think if, back in Baghdad, politicians and the media were hailing, or at least discussing positively, the "success" of the prime minister's recent "surge strategy" in the U.S., even though it had probably been instrumental in creating at least one out of every ten of those refugees, 5 million displaced Americans in all. Imagine what our reaction would be to such blithe barbarism.

Back in the real world, of course, what Michael Schwartz terms the "tsunami" of Iraqi refugees, the greatest refugee crisis on the planet, has received only modest attention in this country (which managed, in 2007, to accept but 1,608 Iraqi refugees out of all those millions -- a figure nonetheless up from 2006). As with so much else, the Bush administration takes no responsibility for the crisis, nor does it feel any need to respond to it at an appropriate level. Until now, to the best of my knowledge, no one has even put together a history of the monumental, horrific tale of human suffering that George W. Bush's war of choice and subsequent occupation unleashed, or fully considered what such a brain drain, such a loss of human capital, might actually mean for Iraq's future.

But the author of the upcoming book, War Without End, The Iraq Debacle in Context, Michael Schwartz has just taken the first pass at history when it comes to this crisis. "Iraq's Tidal Wave of Misery" is, in fact, a monumental effort, laying out the three great waves of Iraqi displacement and dispossession: The first of these came in 2003 with the American occupation's policies of massive de-Baathification of the Iraqi government, demobilization of the Iraqi military, and the shutting down of Iraq's state-owned industries (combined with the rise of a widespread business in kidnapping); the second came when, in 2004, the U.S. military began to attack and invade insurgent strongholds, as they did the Sunni city of Falluja, using the full kinetic force of its massive fire power; the third came with the rise of a Sunni/Shia civil war and campaigns of ethnic cleansing, especially in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad (helped along by the U.S. "surge strategy").

Schwartz lays out the staggering, "tsunami"-level numbers involved, analyzes the disproportionate number of people with professional, managerial, or administrative backgrounds who fled the country ("... whereas less than 1% of Iraqis had a postgraduate education, nearly 10% of refugees in Syria had advanced degrees, including 4.5% with doctorates..."), gives a sense of the pain and deprivation inflicted, and above all suggests what it means for the future of a country like Iraq to have had such a "brain drain," such a largely irreversible loss of "human capital."

He concludes:

"From the vast out-migration and internal migrations of its desperate citizens comes damage to society as a whole that is almost impossible to estimate. The displacement of people carries with it the destruction of human capital. The destruction of human capital deprives Iraq of its most precious resource for repairing the damage of war and occupation, condemning it to further infrastructural decline. This tide of infrastructural decline is the surest guarantee of another wave of displacement, of future floods of refugees. As long as the United States keeps trying to pacify Iraq, it will create wave after wave of misery."

 

Dems Fight Spying with Clinton and Obama MIA

A trio of Democratic House Committee Chairmen are stepping up the fight against President Bush's surveillance bill this week, vowing to beat back a controversial proposal to grant retroactive amnesty to companies accused of illegally spying on Americans.

Congressmen John Dingell, Ed Markey and Bart Stupak are circulating a letter urging their colleagues to stand firm and keep amnesty out of the final spying bill. The House already passed a bill without amnesty, but the Senate is scheduled to pass a bill with retroactive amnesty as early as Tuesday. That would trigger a fight to resolve the issue in a conference committee of Democratic leaders. While a majority of Democrats in both Houses have voted against amnesty, Senators Harry Reid and Jay Rockefeller have fought hard to keep the proposal on the table, quailing at Bush's repeated threats to veto the bill if it does not include amnesty.

The House Democrats' letter explains that amnesty is distinct from the surveillance bill, which grants the administration more spying powers and weakens judicial requirements for warrants. "The issue of immunity for phone companies that chose to cooperate with the President's warrantless wiretapping program deserves a separate and more deliberate examination by Congress," reads the letter. "No special urgency attaches to the question of immunity other than the Administration's general eagerness to limit tort liability and its desire to avoid scrutiny of its own actions, by either the courts or the Congress."

Last week, over two dozen House members hammered the same point in a letter toPresident Bush:

Corporations that handed over their customers' records without a valid court order [...] undermined fundamental civil protections and privacy rights of Americans. Congress as a whole was kept in the dark for years about these activities, and to this day, the overwhelming majority of House Members and Senators have never been briefed on these activities. We cannot be asked to immunize these actions before we know the full extent of what occurred.

 

According to several civil liberties groups, the developments in the House suggest that at least some Democrats are now willing to draw a line in the sand to stop Bush's abuse of executive power. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is suing telephone companies over domestic spying, characterized the House letters as "a significant shift in the political debate over telecom immunity." An ACLU spokesperson told The Nation that the action by House leaders is the only "ray of hope" to scuttle amnesty, because the Senate is considered a lost cause. 2008-02-11-Picture1.png "We need the House to stand strong and not bless this multibillion dollar giveaway to the telecommunications companies," said the ACLU official.

Most observers agree that the spying bill and retroactive amnesty are distinct issues. After all, the bill governs surveillance policy going forward, while the amnesty amendment dismisses cases challenging past surveillance. Apart from one's view on each issue –- I oppose both the underlying White House bill and amnesty, as I explained in this November op-ed –- it would be highly irresponsible for Congress to rush amnesty without basic information about what happened. Yet the administration refuses to brief members, even in classified sessions, as the House committee letter explains:

For the past five months this Committee has asked, in a bipartisan manner, the phone companies and the Administration to [provide factual and legal information that] would justify Congress telling a Federal judge to dismiss all lawsuits…Surprisingly, even at this late date, the Administration has not deemed it important enough to respond to our repeated inquiries or even to brief the Committee Members in closed session.

 

But there's nothing surprising about the administration's contempt for the rule of law at this point. Are Democratic leaders just figuring this out?

The past few months of the spying debate do reveal, in a depressing sort of way, both the promise and residual frailty of this (mildly) resurgent Democratic Party. There are leaders who now go to the mat against Bush, even on counterterrorism policy and even when few are paying attention. That includes people like Senators Dodd and Feingold, and the House leaders fighting this week. But even when they summon a majority of their caucus, as they have on amnesty, they are sold out by a few well-placed members of their own party. So Senate Democrats watch the spectacle of Jay Rockefeller doing his best Joe Lieberman impression, and listen to Harry Reid say that he opposes amnesty while rigging floor votes to pass it.

Meanwhile, the two remaining presidential candidates have finessed the issue with such precision, it's the surest proof that their promises of "change" do not include restoring the rule of law until the election is over. Clinton and Obama did vote the right way this summer, but they missed recent key votes, and they have refused to use the enormous megaphone they share to get anything done. Just this weekend, President Bush peddled more attacks and disinformation about spying in an interview with Fox News. The Obama Campaign was quick to rebut Bush's attack on the Senator's foreign policy, and the Clinton Campaign is plenty aggressive when counter-punching to protect The Clintons. Yet neither campaign so much as released statements from aides to rebut the President's surveillance comments, let alone launch a battle plan to protect civil liberties in the looming fight.

Both campaigns talk about how history will view their unprecedented candidacies -- and breaking political glass ceilings is no small feat. Yet history tends to judge not only one's candidacy, but one's character, assessing whether leaders acted on the conviction to do right when pressed with the choice. Amnesty is on the table now. If Congress sends this legislation to President Bush, next January will be too late. There will be no accountability for domestic spying and few levers for a thorough investigation. And the next President will inherit an office with growing power and receding legitimacy, a dynamic reinforced by Congress and unlikely to abate when even would-be presidents refuse to stand up for the rule of law.

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Photo credit: Takomabibelot

 

As Maine Goes...

Barack Obama won the Maine caucuses by a wide margin Sunday night, securing 59 percent of the vote to just 40 percent for Hillary Clinton.

That's 15 more delegates for Obama, nine more for Clinton.

And it caps a weekend that saw Obama win everywhere people had a chance to vote for him -- from the Virgin Islands, where he got 89.9 percent of the vote, to Louisiana (57 percent of the vote; 33 delegates to 22 for Clinton) to Nebraska (68 percent; 16 delegates to 8 for Clinton) to Washington (68 percent; 35 delegates to 15 for Clinton).

But Maine was particularly sweet. It neighbors New Hampshire, which denied Obama an expected win in last month's primary, and Massachusetts. which backed Clinton on Super Tuesday.

Both Obama and Clinton campaigned in Maine -- bringing a rare level of attention to a state that usually caucuses without much attention. The Clinton camp also brought in former President Bill and former First Daughter Chelsea, and it had the backing of Maine Governor John Baldacci.

But Obama swept just about everywhere.

After this weekend of wins, Obama backers will be excused for renewing the old saying, "As Maine goes, so goes the nation." They've got to feel that the momentum in on their side.

And if the Illinois senator wins Tuesday's "Potomac primary" voting in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, the Obama camp won't just be feeling it has momentum. The surge will have been confirmed.

The Shame of St. Louis

Over the past seven years, as Michael Reynolds wrote in a Nation cover story last June, George W. Bush's faith-based Administration has transformed the small-time abstinence-only business into a billion-dollar industry profiting off tax-payer money being spent on ineffective new school curriculums.

"I can't think of another federal program where so much money was spent without any oversight and to such little effect," James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, told Reynolds. "It wasn't that policy-makers didn't know that abstinence-only didn't work. In 2000 the Institute of Medicine issued a scathing report on these programs. But they went full steam ahead despite the warning. It's beyond naïve. It's immoral."

Thanks to recent Nation guest blogger Jessica Valenti for alerting me to the story of two eighth grade students in St. Louis who felt the same way and recently tried to protest this naivete and immorality. Other than a local CNN report, Valenti's website, Feministing.com, was the first--and still one of the only--publications or broadcast operations on or off-line to report on Tori Shoemaker and Cheyenne Byrd's brave stand against abstinence-only education.

The two students at Louis & Clark Junior High School protested their school's abstinence-only education program by wearing shirts to school adorned with condoms, reading "Safe Sex or No Sex." For daring to make a statement, they were suspended for two days from school by the regional superindent, who called the shirts "inappropriate" and a "distraction." As Valenti adds: "Yes, because a 'distraction' in the form of free speech is clearly much worse than spreading dangerous misinformation about sex to teens."

The CNN video shows the girls to be smart, thoughtful, engaged citizens--just the sort of students our schools should be proud of producing.