The Nation

Back to the Future With Trent Lott

After losing the House and the Senate in the November 7 election, Republicans have been talking about how to create a new and more appealing public image for the Congressional party that has suffered from its association with corruption scandals, crude policies and divisive statements.

Well, the search for the fresh face of the Grand Old Party is done.

Senate Republicans have elected as their "new" whip Mississippi Senator Trent Lott.

The Dixiecrat-defending southerner will now be the No. 2 man in the Republican leadership, serving at the side of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell – the chamber's leading opponent of campaign finance and ethics reforms – who was unanimously elected to replace outgoing Tennessee Senator Bill Frist as majority leader.

Lott's return to a leadership position comes four years after the Mississippian, who was then the Senate Majority Leader, stood at the side of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond and recalled the aging legislator's 1948 bid for the presidency as a defender of racial segregation on the State's Rights (or Dixiecrat) ticket.

"I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it," Lott told a crowd gathered in Washington to mark the South Carolinian's 100th birthday. "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

The seeming suggestion that the progress toward racial equality achieved since the late 1940s was problematic for the country reinforced concerns about Lott's sensitivities – especially among those who recalled that, as a congressman, the Mississippian had voted against renewal of the Voting Rights Act and opposed establishing a national holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. There was also the matter of Lott's long association with the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), an outgrowth of the White Citizens' Councils that in the 1960s led the fight against integration and voting rights in the Deep South. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Anti-Defamation League had all identified the CCC as a hate group, but Lott continued to meet with its leadership and appear at its events.

So troubling were Lott's remarks, especially when placed in the context of his record, that President Bush declared, "Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive, and it is wrong. Recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country. He has apologized and rightly so. Every day that our nation was segregated was a day our nation was unfaithful to our founding ideals."

Shortly thereafter, under pressure from Senate Republicans, Lott stepped down as majority leader to be replaced by Frist.

Now, Lott's back in the leadership, having defeated Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander by a single vote in a caucus meeting Wednesday.

Alexander had been campaigning for the whip's position for more than a year, as part of a plan by the twice-defeated presidential candidate to eventually become the party's senate leader. But Lott upset the scheme.

Why did Strom's friend win? Despite his unsavory past, Lott's much more a "man of the Senate" than Alexander. Many Senate Republicans who want to move away from the harsh partisanship that defined the chamber under Frist's leadership favored Lott over Frist's fellow Tennessean. Republican senators quietly admitted that Lott would be much more likely to support efforts to reassert the role of the party's Senate caucus as an independent entity – rather than a mere extension of Bush White House political and policy offices – than the always-on-the-hustle Alexander.

The fact is that Lott's backers are probably right. The Mississippian owes little loyalty to the Bush White House, unlike Alexander, and as such is probably likely to be a more independent plater.

But what a sad statement Lott's return to the leadership makes: With all his history, it appears that the senator from Mississippi is still the best that Republicans seeking renewal of their party's fortunes can come up with.


John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. "With The Genius of Impeachment," writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, "John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so." The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com

The Good News About Robert Gates

In September 2002, Arab League head Amr Mussa warned that an invasion of Iraq would "open the gates of Hell" in the Middle East. Four years later, with those gates--at least in Iraq -- open wide enough to drive a tank through, the look of the Bush administration is suddenly in rapid flux. (The neocons, having ushered in Hell, are being ushered out the door; while the first President Bush's "realists" and their followers are heading in.) Given the nominee to replace Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the Gates of Hell may soon have a new meaning. Right now, despite all the anticipation about future Iraq policy changes, the good news that accompanies the nomination of former CIA Director (and, as president of Texas A&M, keeper of the Bush family flame) Robert Gates has little to do with Iraq and lots to do with Iran.

In these early post-election days, the Iran rhetoric at the White House has, in fact, remained at the boiling point. As last week ended, White House spokesman Tony Snow labeled Iran and Hezbollah a "global nexus of terrorism." (Paul Woodward, editor of the War in Context web site, commented: "The administration is no longer served by playing to the Christian Right, so its out with religious ‘evil' and in with a much more sophisticated, secular, and no doubt bi-partisan, "global nexus of terrorism.") Then, on Monday, the President himself, in a press briefing with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, called for the global "isolation" of Iran and essentially rejected an opening of any sort to that country. ("[I]f the Iranians want to have a dialogue with us, we have shown them a way forward, and that is for them to verify -- verifiably suspend their enrichment activities.").

None of this sounds like good news; but, despite the rhetoric, the Gates appointment certainly lessens the possibility of an air assault on Iranian nuclear facilities early next year (as well as any campaign to "decapitate" the Iranian regime). This had clearly been one of the (mad) policy options that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were entertaining.

Like James A. Baker, co-head of the Iraq Study Group, Gates believes in negotiating with Iran. In the summer of 2004, with former Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, he co-chaired a task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations that argued for opening a dialogue with Iran. Its report, "Iran: Time for a New Approach," contended that the lack of American engagement with Iran had harmed American interests and advocated direct talks with the Iranians. ("Just as the United States has a constructive relationship with China [and earlier did so with the Soviet Union] while strongly opposing certain aspects of its internal and international policies, Washington should approach Iran with a readiness to explore areas of common interests while continuing to contest objectionable policy.")

In addition, Gates--like Baker one of Daddy Bush's boys--has clearly been brought in to help clean up Sonny's Iraq mess. Being sane and hard-headed, he knows perfectly well that stirring up a hornet's nest in neighboring Iran is hardly a way to tackle the almost insurmountable Iraqi crisis.

Gates offers another advantage for those who prefer not to go to war again. The American high command (despite the fantasies of some administration critics) would never refuse a direct order from the commander-in-chief to bomb the gates of Hell out of Iran. However, a civilian Secretary of Defense (whose reputation is at stake) might. So the replacement of Rumsfeld is also significant in this way.

Throw in a new Democratic Congress that, as Juan Cole has written, is less likely to grant the necessary funds for such a war (though Time's Tony Karon at his Rootless Cosmopolitan website disagrees), and you have the potential for a genuine ebbing of tensions in the one area where the rash acts for which the Bush administration is by now well known could literally wreck the global economy in a matter of days. For this, a small sigh of relief is in order.

For the larger picture, check out Michael Klare's "The Meaning of Gates: From Imperial Offense to Imperial Defense" at Tomdispatch.com.

A Note to Markos Moulitsas

Dear Markos,

I see that you've decided to adopt The Nation's advertising policy. (Or, as you put it, "I'm stealing them for myself.") Markos, you didn't have to "steal" them! As someone who's always believed that imitation is the highest form of flattery, I think it's great that you've emulated our policy.

In all seriousness, it makes sense to me that Kos would embrace the Nation's ad policy. After all Daily Kos is in some ways a forum of opinion like the Nation; its editor(s) have strong opinions that they express every day, and they make all kinds of selections for the site's readers as to what should be featured on the home page; but there's no reason to apply that same level of selectivity to what ads you'll run, and since the money earned from advertising goes to further the editorial goals of the site, it makes simple business sense to err on the side of openness.

Furthermore, I believe you're showing respect for your readers' intelligence by adopting this policy. R-E-S-P-E-C-T for readers' intelligence--and for the broad and free exchange of ideas-- has stood The Nation in good stead these last 141 years! May that same stance keep Daily Kos going for that long!

Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editor & Publisher, The Nation

What Russell Feingold Wants to Do Now

When a prominent political figure decides not to make an anticipated bid for the presidency, it is usually said that the exiting contender gave something up -- a chance to define the national debate, to lead the party and, perhaps, to occupy the White House.

But U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold did not appear to be giving anything up when he sat down the other day for the first extended discussion about his decision -- announced only hours earlier in an e-mail message to supporters -- that he would not be a candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. After almost two years of speculation, which heightened as the three-term senator campaigned nationwide this year on behalf of like-minded Democrats, Feingold is suddenly out of the running. Even the prospect of a vice presidential nomination, which he does not rule out, seems remote for a Democrat who has often jousted with his party's centrist leadership.

Still, Feingold sounded, if anything, more engaged, more enthusiastic and more prepared to advance the progressive agenda that would have been the centerpiece of a presidential bid.

"I feel like it puts me right at the heart of the greatest issues of our time," Feingold said of the decision by voters in last week's elections to hand control of the Senate to his Democratic caucus -- a move that all but assured the junior senator from Wisconsin powerful positions on four of the chamber's most important committees.

Sitting in the living room of his home outside Madison, Wisconsin, Feingold came off like a man who was embarking on a new career. In a sense, he is. After spending most the last 14 years as an outsider in a Republican-controlled Senate, he is now a reasonably senior member of the majority party. And, to Feingold's view, the prospect of finally making things happen in the Senate -- especially at a time when the House of Representatives is also shifting to Democratic control -- is as exciting and necessary as that of spending a year mounting what would unquestionably have been an uphill bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"I've been the stopper on so many things relating to civil liberties and other issues that so many of us care about," the senator said. "Now, I have a chance to actually fix some of those things."

It was Feingold's role as a dissenter that made him an attractive presidential prospect, especially among progressive Democrats and independents who saw him as one of the few members of Congress who was willing to challenge the Bush administration on the fundamental issues of war and peace, civil liberties and torture.

The sole senator to oppose the Patriot Act in 2001 and the first senator to advocate a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Feingold stoked speculation about a possible 2008 presidential bid by refusing to read from the cautious Democratic Party playbook during the early stages of the 2006 congressional campaign season.

His call for the censure of President Bush for authorizing illegal warrantless wiretapping was wildly popular with party activists -- even if most of his fellow Democratic senators shunned the move. His refusal to endorse pro-war Senator Joe Lieberman in the August Democratic primary in Connecticut established him as an ally of grassroots activists who wanted to force national Democrats to move toward a clear anti-war stance.

"Run, Russ, Run!" Web sites were created by supporters in states across the country. Syndicated columnist Molly Ivins wrote that "I can't see a damn soul in D.C. except Russ Feingold who is even worth considering for president. The rest of them seem to me so poisonously in hock to this system of legalized bribery they can't even see straight."

The senator has always bristled at descriptions of him as a "maverick." And, now, in a Senate where Democrats are in the majority, and where new members such as Vermont's Bernie Sanders and Ohio's Sherrod Brown have records of working with Feingold to stop the war and block the Patriot Act, Feingold is looking at the prospect of shaping domestic and international policy rather than merely mounting lonely fights against the forces of reaction.

"It's a different way to look at the world," Feingold said. "I was very accepting of my role as a dissenter -- and tried to do it well. I was happy to stand up for what was right. But to be able to actually fix some of this stuff, to do positive things, that's exciting to me. I know some people won't believe it, because they think politicians are always running for the next office, but what we can do in the Senate is as exciting to me as the prospect of running for president."

Feingold is convinced that he is uniquely positioned to get things done as a member of four key committees: Budget, Judiciary, Intelligence and Foreign Relations. It's expected that he will chair the Foreign Relations Committee's subcommittee on Africa, which will allow him to be a key player on international development and disease prevention. He also will be able to play a critical role in shaping a realistic discussion about averting terrorism.

"This obsession with Iraq has caused such a failure to understand what is happening in the rest of the world, in the horn of Africa, in northern Africa," the senator says of regions where failed states, porous borders and poverty have contributed to the rise of Islamic militancy. "Five years after 9/11, we're still not thinking clearly about what the real threats are and how best to address them. I think I can use this committee to help us all think about it clearly -- not just think about Africa but think about the whole problem, using Africa as a prism."

On the Judiciary Committee, where it's anticipated he will chair the Constitution Subcommittee, Feingold will be able to reopen discussions about the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping and other civil liberties issues. Feingold also wants to examine questions relating to how the Bush administration rushed the country to war in Iraq without a formal declaration of war and without respecting the War Powers Act. The Wisconsinite talks of using his committee chairmanship to hold hearings that will reassert "the sense our founders had about what you had to do before you go to war."

Those are heady issues, as heady as will be addressed in the presidential campaign. And the opportunity to dive into the policy debates immediately is what excites Feingold. Had Republicans held their majority on Tuesday, he admits, "it would have made it harder" to forego a presidential run and the bully pulpit that goes with it.

But Feingold is no longer a member of what he described as "the deep minority." His party controls Congress, and it could, within two years, control the White House.

While he won't be the candidate, Feingold anticipates playing a role in selecting and electing a Democrat in 2008. To the senator's view, the 2008 presidential field has always been divided into two classes of candidates. "One is the celebrities. There are three celebrities," he said, listing Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. "Then there's the mere mortals, and the very mere mortals like me."

Feingold acknowledged that "there was a world of difference" between the attention he got on the 2006 campaign trail and the response to Obama. While Obama was on the cover of Time magazine on the eve of the election, Feingold was on the cover of Madison magazine.

"He's the rock star," Feingold says of Obama. Yet Feingold says it was not fear of facing Obama or Clinton that led him to leave the Democratic field for 2008.

A student of presidential politics going back to his youth in Janesville, Wisconsin, Feingold is well aware that frontrunners can stumble, and he has already taken calls from other Democrats -- such as Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack -- who will be running in 2008 with an eye toward capitalizing on any frontrunner missteps.

If the 2008 contest were to come down to Clinton and Obama, Feingold said he won't be making an early endorsement. But he is clearly more impressed with the fact that Obama questioned the Bush administration's rush to war in 2002 than he is with Clinton's vote that year to authorize the president to attack Iraq and her continuing support of the endeavor.

What Feingold really wants to do going into the 2008 caucuses and primaries is to encourage Democrats to take progressive positions, and to highlight it when they do. He says, "I'm prepared to be supportive of this candidate if he says 'let's overturn that torture bill,' and this person if they're willing to say 'let's have a timeline for Iraq.' I'm willing to go with them, do an appearance. But it's going to be based on their merits, on their positions and how things develop."

What happens if it develops that the 2008 Democratic nominee taps Feingold as his or her running mate?

"I feel that's an obligation almost. If the nominee of my party sits down with his advisers and says 'Feingold's the guy,' I think it's pretty hard to say 'no.' I think you have a duty," he says. "There would be cases that would be harder than others to do it. I don't think that will ever happen, but I would be ready to do it if asked."

Feingold is probably right when he says he does not expect a vice presidential invite. An Obama/Feingold ticket is unlikely, as they are both senators, both Midwesterners and both considered to be from the liberal wing of the party. A Clinton/Feingold ticket would provide regional and ideological balance, but the New Yorker and the Wisconsinite have long been at odds with one another.

Ultimately, however, if McCain is the Republican presidential nominee and Democrats feel they must counter the Arizona senator's appeal as a straight-shooting reformer, a savvy Democratic presidential nominee might turn to the Democratic half of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform team.

After he made his announcement, however, Feingold was not worrying much about vice presidential machinations.

Instead, he was readying himself to return to a Capitol where Democrats will now be in charge. He did not sound like someone who was giving up a presidential run; indeed, he sounded like a senator who was genuinely excited about flexing the muscles that develop when his party is in charge.


John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. "With The Genius of Impeachment," writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, "John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so." The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com

Oversight Begins

Last month, President Bush and His Congress snuck a provision into a military authorization bill that would put an end to the good work of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

But on November 8, we awoke from the bad Bush dream, and now it looks like the Inspector General's work will not only continue, but perhaps be expanded.

James Glanz reports in the New York Times today that House and Senate Democrats have introduced bills – with bipartisan support – to reverse the Bush administration's most recent attempt to silence its critics. Sen. Russ Feingold said the proposals would stop the Inspector General's office "from being prematurely shut down and… ensure that U.S. taxpayer dollars for Iraq reconstruction efforts will not be vulnerable to even more waste, fraud and abuse."

While the Office of the Inspector General doesn't have the power and breadth of an independent war profiteering commission, it does represent a step in the right direction. And the Democrats' quick action on this front is welcome news indeed.

A New Direction

It's been so long since Democrats have won a sweeping Congressional election that many don't know quite how to feel. It might be instructive therefore to study the reaction of the Republican politicians and pundits.

The loss of the House and the Senate seems to have shaken them to their core. Blame is flying in all directions. Congressional Republicans who have to vacate their offices are blaming the White House, Rove, and, in particular President Bush's "misdirection" over his support of Rumsfeld before the election. Pointing the finger back, the Boy Genius accuses scandal-tainted Congressional members of failing to follow his "program."

Over at National Review, the deflated pundits are sounding like Nancy Pelosi, bravely willing to admit after the votes have been counted that the "culture of corruption" was in fact real. Meanwhile, conservative activists like Pat Toomey of the Club for Growth and Rep Mike Spence of the Republican Study Group blame conservatives for abandoning their small government principles.

What all these Johnny-come-lately prophets of sin and apostasy, who were cheering compassionate conservatism in 2000, 2002, and 2004, fail to accept is that the American people had six years to examine the policies and results of the Republican majority and overwhelming rejected them. The voters choose a new direction.

Murtha: "Iraq Is Crucial"

If the election for House Majority Leader becomes a referendum on corruption, Jack Murtha loses, despite his opponent Steny Hoyer's numerous ties to K Street lobbyists.

That's why Murtha sent out a press release today reaffirming his opposition to the Iraq war--and Hoyer's support for it.

"Of the critical issues we are faced with today, the war in Iraq is the most crucial," Murtha wrote. "The Pelosi-Murtha position on the war is the reason the Democrats are in the majority today. Congressman Hoyer's position has been to stay the course with President Bush from the very beginning and, like Senator John McCain, he advocates sending in more troops."

Hoyer's office vehemently disagreed with such a characterization.

"Congressman Hoyer and Congressman Murtha have joined other Democratic leaders from both the House and Senate in signing three letters to the President that outline the consensus among Democrats regarding Iraq," said Stacey Farnen Bernards, Hoyer's press secretary. "Any representation that Congressman Hoyer endorses a ‘stay-the-course' strategy or advocates sending more troops to Iraq is wrong."

In reality, Hoyer did disparage Murtha after the Pennsylvania Democrat broke with the Bush Administration's policy on the war last November. "I believe that a precipitous withdrawal of American forces in Iraq could lead to disaster," Hoyer wrote on November 30, "spawning a civil war, fostering a haven for terrorists and damaging our nation's security and credibility. I still believe that we can--and that we must--achieve success in Iraq."

Since then, Hoyer has edged away from his support of the war, emphasizing his unity with the Democratic caucus. And antiwar liberals have thus far split on who to support. Rep. Maxine Waters, head of the Out of Iraq Caucus, is backing Hoyer. In a letter sent yesterday, a group of progressive Democrats backing Hoyer cited his commitment to raising the minimum wage and support for civil rights, reproductive freedom and the environment as decisive factors.

Other Democrats who support a withdrawal from Iraq, however, are sticking with Murtha, including Pelosi. Said Washington Rep. Jim McDermott: "Jack was the first one in the center of the caucus who came out and said we, have to move. Guys like me who were against the war from the very start were waiting until somebody emerged...Without Jack, we would not be in power today."

The war in Iraq helped swing the midterm election toward the Democrats. The jury is still out on whether it will decide who leads the party as well.

How the GOP Could Win

On the darkest day for Republicans in decades, the GOP had one bright light: Arnold Schwarzenegger, who got more votes than any other candidate in his party on November 7 – and he did it in the bluest of blue states, a state dominated politically by Diane Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi.

Does Schwarzenegger Republicanism provide a model for his party's recovery from Karl Rove? Arnold suggested as much in his election night victory speech at the Beverly Hilton, where he said the Republicans should follow what he modestly called "the California way."

At a time when the shrunken GOP is rapidly becoming the party of white southern evangelicals obsessed with homosexuality and abortion, Arnold poses a sunny alternative, with a progressive-looking program as strong and cheerful as he seems to be. In the last year he approved Democratic proposals for an increase in the state's minimum wage, along with a dramatic step to fight global warming. And he's not afraid to be a big spender – along with Democratic leaders, he sponsored a series of ballot propositions to undertake a massive rebuilding of the state's infrastructure, to construct new schools and freeways, and to repair levees so that Sacramento doesn't become the next New Orleans.

Schwarzenegger Republicanism shows how to win elections by co-opting a few key Democratic issues, not worrying about gay marriage or abortion rights, and appealing to the center. He ended up with 56 percent of the vote. CNN's exit poll showed that Arnold was the choice of almost 60 percent of California's independent voters and 58 percent of moderates. He got 22 percent of Democratic voters to vote for him. And his propositions all passed easily. If this works in California, where Diane Feinstein got 60 per cent of the vote in the same election, it could work even better in swing states and border states, where the Democrats are weaker to begin with.

Now that George Bush is finished, Arnold himself could lead in transforming the party – his star power draws huge enthusiastic crowds wherever he goes. "He could be the Republican's Bill Clinton," says Amy Wilentz, author of "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen," a bestseller about California in the Age of Arnold.

But will the Republican Party learn the lessons of Arnold's appeal? It seems unlikely. Even in California, the rest of the statewide Republican ticket on election day consisted of the old style right-wing politicos – and despite Arnold's charisma at the head of the ticket, virtually all of them lost. Partly that's because the state is so gerrymandered that most Republican office holders never needed to appeal to Democratic voters and have no experience doing so.

On the national scene the situation is similar. The surviving Republicans in office owe their existence to their base – those same white southern evangelicals obsessed with prayer in school and guns everywhere else -- and those Republicans are not about to betray their base.

There's one other big reason why Schwarzenegger doesn't represent the Republican future: Arnold himself has shown little interest in leading the party's transformation. It's true that he said in his election night speech that his victory was "proving to the nation that there is another way to go, a better path to solve problems." But in California he has done nothing to develop candidates in his image – which is one reason why the rest of the statewide Republican ticket lost.

On the national scene, he did speak at the party's 2004 convention in Madison Square Garden, but barely campaigned for Bush that year, and this year he didn't campaign for any Republican candidates in other states. Arnold campaigns for himself.

Finally, his image as a sunny strongman comes from his career as a movie star. That kind of charisma is missing from the rest of the Republicans, who dismiss Arnold's triumph as Hollywood glitz that can't be transferred to others in the GOP. They may be right about that.

So it appears that the Democrats don't need to worry. There's only one Schwarzenegger Republican in American politics. California is the exception that proves the rule; in the rest of the country, the Democrats have the center all to themselves.

Pelosi Backs Murtha for No. 2: Iraq over Ethics?

This morning, I called Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, to ask about the potential congressional reforms House Speaker-To-Be Nancy Pelosi is expected to push on Day One. But before we got to that, Sloan teed off on Pelosi for having endorsed Representative Jack Murtha, the hawk turned Iraq war critic, in his fight against Representative Steny Hoyer to be the House Democratic majority leader, the powerful number-two job in the body. "Murtha has lots of ethics issues," Sloan exclaimed. "What the hell is she thinking? Corruption turns out to be a major issue in the campaign, and you endorse the guy with the more ethics problems?"

Sloan was referring to exit polls that noted that 42 percent of voters considered corruption and congressional scandals critical to their voting decisions. And she pointed to her outfit's Beyond DeLay site that lists the "20 Most Corrupt Members of Congress." Murtha was not on that roster, but he garnered one of five "Dishonorable Mentions" (along with Republican Representatives Dennis Hastert, the outgoing speaker, J.D. Hayworth, who was defeated in Arizona last week, and Don Sherwood, who was accused by his mistress of choking her and who also lost his bid for reelection).

CREW's low-down on Murtha charges that he abused his position as the senior member of the defense appropriations subcommittee to steer contracts to military firms represented by his brother, a registered lobbyist. The report also notes that Murtha routinely inserted funding earmarks into defense spending bills for contractors that funded his campaigns and hired a lobbying firm run by a former aide on the defense appropriations subcommittee.

Murtha, according to Sloan, was also instrumental in undermining the House ethics committee. In the late 1990s, he successfully pushed (with other legislators) to change the committee's rules to prevent it from accepting ethics complaints from parties outside Congress. He also pressed Democratic leaders to name Representative Alan Mollohan of West Virginia the senior Democrat of the ethics committee. Mollohan has had his own ethics troubles--which have forced him off the ethics committee--and is a member of CREW's Top (or Bottom) 20. (See here.) "Murtha really doesn't like the ethics committee," says Sloan, speculating this may be due to Murtha's involvement in the Abscam bribery scandal of the late 1970s and early 1980s. (The ethics committee chose not to file charges against Murtha, after which the panel's special counsel resigned in protest.) "Murtha seems like a bad choice from our perspective," Sloan said.

The fight to be Pelosi's No. 2 has its odd dynamics. Hoyer is regarded as a centrist sort of Democrat. He's no virgin when it comes to the institutional corruptions of House, readily hitting up corporate interests for campaign cash. But Hoyer has not been accused of ethical violations. Though Murtha advocates a get-out-of-Iraq-now position, he is a hawkish conservative who has attacked Hoyer for being too liberal.

By publicly endorsing Murtha--who has voted more with the Republicans than almost every other House Democrat--Pelosi has backed the fellow who has been less loyal to the party, who has engaged in liberal-baiting, and who is widely considered to be the underdog in the race. Murtha is indeed the Democrats' leading critic of the war, and he and Pelosi, another war opponent, have found themselves in the same foxhole. (Hoyer, like Murtha, voted to give Bush the authority to attack Iraq, but he has not turned on the war and has criticized Democratic calls for withdrawal.) Perhaps Pelosi figured that with the Iraq war likely to be the major source of dispute between her and the White House (and congressional Republicans), she needed an antiwar hawk right by her side. But much of this present tussle might be more personal than policy. Pelosi and Hoyer have long been rivals; she defeated Hoyer to become the Democratic minority leader.

In the Murtha-Hoyer face-off, is the choice ethics versus opposition to the war? Conservative versus centrist? A Pelosi ally versus a Pelosi rival? Whatever it is, siding publicly with Murtha is risky for Pelosi. Should Murtha lose, Pelosi will look like a weak leader--at the start. This is a contest between two imperfect candidates, each carrying different baggage. It might have been wise for her to duck.


DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.