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My Dinner With Ashcroft

I spent this past weekend bunkered in with 350 movement conservatives and some of their favorite pols and strategists – from John Ashcroft to Tom Tancredo to Jim Woolsey --and let me tell you, even many of these folks are openly worried about Republican chances in the Fall.

The Phoenix gathering was the latest edition of David Horowitz's Restoration Weekend, a traditional gathering of the right-wing tribes. And no, I didn't go native. I was merely a panelist on the future of the Democratic Party along with Matt Bai of The New York Times and Democratic consultants Flavia Colgan and Pat Caddell. You can see my personal blog for the Ashcroft jokes.

But here's the serious part: there's a lot of fear and trembling going on among Republicans. A rich sampler from this weekend's panel discussions:

Conservative Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake: He pleaded with fellow conservatives to take the high road of liberalized immigration reform in the escalating debate and not go down the immigrant-bashing path. "I encourage Republicans to not repeat what happened in California in 1994," he said referring to GOP support for Prop 187. "It works for one cycle and then you pay a price for a decade."

Former Congressman Pat Toomey, current head of The Club for Growth: "We have to acknowledge we have a President who is not popular… The war in Iraq is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room and a major downturn could drown anything we do… We won in 1994 because we promised small government and going into the 2006 elections this is key idea we have abandoned."

Former Colorado State Senator John Andrews: "I feel the Republican Party in my state and nationally is a party that has lost its way… we need to find our way back to a reason to vote Republican."

Missouri Lt. Governor Pete Kinder on the state of the party: "The demoralization of the base is real. I hear it everywhere."

Conservative Arizona Congressman John Shaddeg on the Abramoff scandal: "I believe these scandals are the end of the 1994 Revolution… all this seriously threatens the Republican majority. It might be hard to shrink government as we promised. But it's not that hard to be honest and we haven't."

By the way, I had a terrific time.

 

The Costs of War

As we approach the third anniversary of Bush's invasion of Iraq, with domestic spending being gutted, tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans being extended, and the Bush administration submitting a request for an additional $72.4 billion in war-related funding, the National Priorities Project (NPP) has issued an invaluable new report demonstrating the financial impact of the war on taxpayers in every state.

Upon approval of the supplemental funding bill, total spending on the war and occupation in Iraq will exceed $315 billion. Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, estimates that when all is said and done the final price tag will reach somewhere between $1 trillion and $2 trillion.

The NPP highlights the unfathomable trade-offs our nation is making in order to continue funding the Iraq occupation – other spending priorities that are being missed – both at the state and national levels.

Check out these vivid examples: for the same $315 billion, over 71 million people could have received comprehensive health care (36 million are currently uninsured); 61 million students could receive university scholarships; nearly 5 million workers could be employed as port container inspectors (only 6 percent of the 9 million containers arriving annually are currently inspected); or every child in the world could be given basic immunizations for the next 80 years...

In Washington, DC, where US citizens are still denied representation in Congress, taxpayers will pay $1.5 billion towards Iraq through Fiscal Year 2006. Money that could otherwise be used to place 201,000 children in Head Start; build 10,000 affordable housing units; open 175 new Elementary schools; or ensure that 607,000 children receive health care….

NPP has made it very easy to see what could be done in your state if not for the war's costs. Click here to check it out, and make sure your friends, family, and representatives know the true story about the waste, costs, and lost opportunities that result from the continued disaster in Iraq.

Ted’s Excellent New Adventure

In the New York Times on Friday, Ted Koppel – now a columnist free from the strictures of ABC-Disney – lays it on the line in examining the undeniable role of oil in our continuing occupation of Iraq. Koppel notes, "….America's rapt attention to the security of the Persian Gulf is what it has always been. It's about the oil."

Hmmm….I seem to recall hearing some ideas along those lines – years ago – from the likes of Michael Moore in Farenheit 9/11 and many other lefties & progressives as well. They were each summarily dismissed – not just by the right but also by many in the MSM – as "unpatriotic," "conspiracy-theorists," "paranoid," "un-American," "simplistic," "leftists," etc.

Perhaps now, after three years of confronting the chaos, ineptitude, dishonesty, and failures of Iraq policy, critics will no longer face the scathing, simplistic, backlash that once confronted them.

Time will tell.

Duke Ain't Cheap

There's one thing you can say about Duke Cunningham: He didn't come cheap. Mitchell Wade, the defense contractor who purchased Cunningham's California home for a price inflated by $700,000, today pleaded guilty to showering Duke with $1 million in bribes.

These bribes included, among other things, a $140,000 yacht (the "Duke-Stir"), an 1850s Louis Phillipe commode, Persian rugs, a Rolls Royce and two silver candelabras, all used to "feather his nest in San Diego." The requests came courtesy of Duke's "bribe menu." In return Wade's company MZM earned over $150 million in government contracts, courtesy of Duke's seat on the House defense appropriation subcommittee.

According to his plea Wade also bribed the former executive director of the Army's National Ground Intelligence Center and two sitting members of Congress, Reps. Virgil Goode (R-VA) and Katherine Harris (R-FL).

Yes, the same Katherine Harris who helped hand Bush the election in Florida and is now running for the Senate against Bill Nelson. It's hard to imagine a more deserving target.

"It is a Dick Cheney World Out There..."

Bill Moyers is hitting the road in California for an eight-city speaking tour to raise issues of money and politics. And, as usual, he's got a lot to say about the withering state of our democracy.

But how could anyone think that the Texas-born observer of the American Zeitgeist would avoid comment on the vice presidential "peppering" spree that recently took place in Moyers' home state.

Moyers promises to leave "the rich threads of humor to pluck from the hunting incident in Texas" to The Daily Show's Jon Stewart. But the man who once served as press secretary for former President Lyndon Johnson is intrigued by the backstory of Dick Cheney's trevails that is rich with insight and righteous indignation about what has become of our politics and our public life.

"I can accept Dick Cheney's word that the accident was one of the worst moments of his life. What intrigues me as a journalist now is the rare glimpse we have serendipitously been offered into the tightly knit world of the elites who govern today," says Moyers, who did such a good job of shining the light of public scrutiny on those elites when he hosted PBS's NOW program that Bush administration allies set up a covert campaign to get him off the air.

"The Vice President was hunting on a 50-thousand acre ranch owned by a lobbyist friend who is the heiress to a family fortune of land, cattle, banking and oil (ah, yes, the quickest and surest way to the American dream remains to choose your parents well)," adds Moyers in remarks prepared for his California speaking tour.

"The circumstances of the hunt and the identity of the hunters provoked a lament from The Economist. The most influential pro-business magazine in the world is concerned that hunting in America is becoming a matter of class: the rich are doing more, the working stiffs, less. The annual loss of 1.5 million acres of wildlife habitat and 1 million acres of farm and ranchland to development and sprawl has come "at the expense of ‘The Deer Hunter' crowd in the small towns of the north-east, the rednecks of the south and the cowboys of the west." Their places, says The Economist, are being taken by the affluent who pay plenty for such conveniences as being driven to where the covey cooperatively awaits. The magazine (hardly a Marxist rag, remember) describes Mr. Cheney's own expedition as "a lot closer to ‘Gosford Park' than ‘The Deer Hunter' – a group of fat old toffs waiting for wildlife to be flushed towards them at huge expense.

"At the heart of this story is a metaphor of power. The Vice President turned his host, the lobbyist who is also the ranch owner, into his de facto news manager. She would disclose the shooting only when Cheney was ready and only on his terms. Sure enough, nothing was made public for almost 20 hours until she finally leaked the authorized version to the local newspaper. Ms. Armstrong suggested the blame lay with the victim, who, she indicated, had failed to inform the Vice President of his whereabouts and walked into a hail of friendly fire. Three days later Cheney revised the story and apologized. Don't you wonder what went back and forth with the White House that long night of trying to agree on the official line?

"We do know someone from the hunting party was in touch with Karl Rove at the White House. For certain Rove's the kind of fellow you want on the other end of the line when great concoctions are being hatched, especially if you wish the victim to hang for the crime committed against him."

Describing the whole affair "a study of the inner circle at the top of American politics," Moyers reflects on a recent article by Sidney Blumenthal that notes how incestuous that inner circle has become.

"Armstrong's father invested in Rove's political consulting firm that managed George W. Bush's election as governor of Texas and as president. Her mother, Anne Armstrong, is a longtime Republican activist and donor. Ronald Reagan appointed her to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board after her tenure as Ambassador to the United Kingdom under President Ford, whose chief of staff was a young Dick Cheney," explains Moyers. "Anne Armstrong served on the board of directors of Halliburton that hired Cheney to run the company. Her daughter, Katherine Armstrong, host of the hunting party, was once a lobbyist for the powerful Houston law firm founded by the family of James A. Baker III, who was chief of staff to Reagan, Secretary of State under the first George Bush, and the man designated by the Bush family to make sure the younger Bush was named President in 2000 despite having lost the popular vote. According to Blumenthal, one of her more recent lobbying jobs was with a large construction firm with contracts in Iraq."

Moyers sums things up with an observation of our times that is as telling as it is chilling: "It is a Dick Cheney world out there –- a world where politicians and lobbyists hunt together, dine together, drink together, play together, pray together and prey together, all the while carving up the world according to their own interests."

John Nichols's book The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press) is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. Publisher's Weekly describes it as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney."

Sweet Victory: Electoral Reform Movement Marches On

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen.

If there's one core cause for progressives to unite around, it just may be the clean elections movement. Until elections are publicly financed, big money will continue to dominate politics and legislation--from health care to trade to minimum wage initiatives--will continue to be crafted in the interests of corporations, not citizens.

Fortunately, in the past two weeks, there's been some major progress in the fight to take money out of politics. On Valentine's Day, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors voted 9 to 2 in support of public financing of the city's mayoral elections. The ordinance will provide $6 million in public funds to all qualifying mayoral candidates in each election cycle. Although the measure does not provide 100 percent public financing like the intitiatives in Portland, Oregon and Albuquerque, New Mexico, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, the legislation's sponsor, said it will be an important first step to "ward off the corrosive impact of big money and special interests."

Both Portland and Albuquerque--the two strongest clean election models in the country--prevailed over serious opposition from corporate interests in the past week. Last week, in Portland, business-backed opponents of public financing failed to obtain enough signatures to force a referendum on the clean elections bill in May (a recount, however, is pending). And in Albuquerque, according to Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, legislative backers of a repeal failed to move their bill by a key legislative deadline.

"This past week's good news for reformers is likely to continue in the weeks and months to come," said Nyhart. "Record campaign fundraising (see Schwarzenegger's bid to raise $120 million in the California gubernatorial race) and the continued stench of national scandal will lift reform efforts in Washington DC and across the country this year and beyond."

In other electoral reform news, the Center for Voting and Democracy has launched an excellent new initiative that would give equal representation to voters in presidental elections. The plan, backed by Common Cause and a bipartisan group of Congressmen, would bring states together in support of a national popular vote.

"This exciting new campaign…promises to dramatically change debate about reforming presidential elections," said Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. "If successful, [it] would have a powerful impact on voter participation, racial fairness and protections of the right to vote." Click here for details.


Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, contributes to The Nation's new blog, The Notion, and co-writes Sweet Victories with Katrina vanden Heuvel.

X-Offenders

A judge in Colombia has ruled that a bicycle courier be jailed for four years for grabbing a woman's bum while he whizzed past her on the street. When the grabber was caught, Diana Marcela Diaz, the grabbed, was given three choices: let him go, file a complaint, or slap him. She chose the precedent-setting but perhaps less-immediately gratifying route of filing a complaint. Now that cyclist will have four long years to think about what he's done.

The Colombians may have overreacted just a little, but the Italians could take a clue from their playbook. Last weekend it was reported in the Times that Italy's highest court ruled that sexually abusing a girl who is not a virgin is a less serious crime than sexually abusing a virgin. I'd like to face the judge of that court with the same three options that Diana Marcela Diaz had; I think I'd take option 2 AND 3.

Why's a Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel on the "No-Fly" List?

The federal officials who are busy assuring Americans that they've got their act together when it comes to managing port security are not inspiring much confidence with their approach to airline security.

When Dr. Robert Johnson, a heart surgeon who did his active duty with the U.S. Army Reserve before being honorably discharged with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, arrived at the Syracuse airport near his home in upstate New York last month for a flight to Florida, he was told he could not travel.

Why? Johnson was told that his name had been added to the federal "no-fly" list as a possible terror suspect.

Johnson, who served in the military during the time of the first Gulf War and then came home to serve as northern New York's first board-certified thoracic surgeon and an active member of the community in his hometown of Sackets Harbor, is not a terror suspect. But he is an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, who mounted a scrappy campaign for Congress as the Democratic challenger to Republican Representative John McHugh in 2004 and who plans to challenge McHugh again in upstate New York's sprawling 23rd District.

Johnson, who eventually made it onto the flight to Florida, is angry. And, like a growing number of war critics whose names have ended up on "no-fly" lists – some of them prominent, many of them merely concerned citizens – he wants some answers.

"Why would a former lieutenant colonel who swore an oath to defend and protect our country pose a threat of terrorism?" he asked, in an interview with the Plattsburgh Press-Republican newspaper.

So far, he's not getting satisfactory responses to his questions.

No one at the Syracuse airport would tell him why he was on the list.

Nor has the federal Transportation Security Administration, which compiles the "no-fly" files, been forthcoming – except to say that names are added to the watch lists on the "recommendations and information received from federal agencies, including intelligence and law-enforcement agencies."

The story's gotten a good deal of media attention in upstate New York, and Johnson is speculating with reporters about whether his name ended up on the list because he ran against McHugh as a veteran who boldly declared that: "I know the ravages of war and I know the sacrifices that have to be made when a war is in our national interest. This war is not in our national interest."

McHugh's office denies any wrongdoing by the Republican congressman, a senior member of the powerful House Armed Services Committee who brags about working closely with the Pentagon and intelligence agencies.

Johnson's not backing off his call for an explanation.

The physician-candidate told the Plattsburgh paper that the secrecy surrounding his name's addition to the "no-fly" list, and the prospect that it might be there because of his anti-war views, is outrageous.

"This is like McCarthyism in the 1950s," says Johnson.

White House Whitewash on Katrina?

I first posted this at www.davidcorn.com....

We all know how much this White House cherishes self-examination and accountability. So it was safe to assume that its just-released report on Hurricane Katrina would be a no-holds-barred, blistering, tell-all account of what went wrong--from the streets of New Orleans all the way to the Oval Office. But--can you believe it?--the report somehow managed to miss the missteps that occurred at the White House. There's no accounting of why George W. Bush, Dick Cheney or Andrew Card didn't move quickly to supervise the federal response to Katrina. Perhaps a chapter was lost on the way to the printer. I've done a word search on the main body of the 228-page report. Looking for the phrase "White House," I found six pages on which the White House is mentioned; four of those are in the recommendation section and describe how the White House can be involved in a better response next time.

Here are the other references to the White House (the bold emphasis is mine):

* p. 36 -- [A]s late as 6:00 PM EDT that day [August 29, the day Katrina made landfall, the DHS Homeland Security Operations Center (HSOC) reported to senior DHS and White House officials that, "Preliminary reports indicate the levees in New Orleans have not been breached, however an assessment is still pending."

....At 6 PM EDT aboard a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, Marty Bahamonde, a FEMA Public Affairs Official, observed the extent of the flooding and was "struck by how accurate" the earlier local reporting was of the levee breaches. He then called FEMA Director Michael Brown and other FEMA officials with his eyewitness account at approximately 8 PM EDT that day. Director Brown has testified that he subsequently called the White House to report the flooding information he received from Bahamonde. Following the calls, Mr. Bahamonde arranged a conference call with State, regional, and FEMA officials to recount what he had seen. An HSOC report marked 10:30 PM EDT, but not received at the White House until 12:02 AM EDT the next day, summarized the conference call and reported Mr. Bahamonde's observations on the extent of flooding throughout New Orleans.

* p. 49 -- These [faith-based groups] groups succeeded in their missions, mitigated suffering and helped victims survive mostly in spite of, not because of, the government. These groups deserve better next time. Jim Towey, Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said these folks were the foot soldiers and armies of compassion that victims of Katrina so desperately needed.

Did Bush do anything wrong? Apparently not. Well, to be fair, the report does gently suggest that he apparently failed to act on his vision. The foreword notes,

Hurricane Katrina prompted an extraordinary national response that included all levels of government--Federal, State, and local--the private sector, faith-based and charitable organizations, foreign countries, and individual citizens. People and resources rushed to the Gulf Coast region to aid the emergency response and meet victims' needs. Their actions saved lives and provided critical assistance to Hurricane Katrina survivors. Despite these efforts, the response to Hurricane Katrina fell far short of the seamless, coordinated effort that had been envisioned by President Bush when he ordered the creation of a National Response Plan in February 2003.

So Bush had done the appropriate pre-disaster work. He had "envisioned" a "seamless, coordinated effort." Yet somehow that envisioned response did not happen on its own--while Bush was playing guitar at a Navy base in San Diego the day after Katrina hit. Well, shouldn't Bush have fired whoever was responsible for not putting his vision into practice? I supposed that would not be too compassionate.

And here's an interesting comparison. The House report on Katrina (written by Republicans) was titled, A Failure of Initiative. Bush's report is called Lessons Learned. Its not called Lessons Learned Quickly, for there still is no director of FEMA (to replace Michael Brown)--just an acting director.