President Bush and US Senator Russ Feingold have taken dramatically different approaches to the traditional August break from Washington intrigues.
Bush has gone into hiding, while Feingold has gone to talk with Americans.
It should not come as much of a surprise that the man who has gotten in touch with the country's grassroots--Feingold--has recognized the need to set a timeline for the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq. Nor should it be shocking that aides to the man who has cut himself off from the national discourse--Bush--have trotted out tired old excuses for rejecting Feingold's proposal to set a December 2006 deadline for extracting US troops from the Middle East quagmire.
As he has in the past, Bush is spending August in seclusion, holed up behind the security fences that surround his ranch in rural Texas. According to official accounts, he is attempting to read a book about salt and to learn how to ride a bike without falling off. Unofficially, but quite obviously, he has spent most of his time dodging requests for face time with Cindy Sheehan, the mother of one of the more than 1,800 Americans killed in the President's ill-fated invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Feingold has gone a completely different route from Bush. He has traveled extensively, and made himself available to anyone who wants to talk with him about the Iraq imbroglio at more than fifteen town-hall meetings in his home state. What Feingold has heard during listening sessions with constituents across the heartland state of Wisconsin has emboldened him to become the first senator to call for setting a date to end the occupation and bring the troops home.
"I call what I am doing breaking the taboo," the Democrat who is being boomed as a potential 2008 presidential candidate said. "[Most] senators have been intimidated and are not talking about a time frame. We have to make it safe to go in the water and discuss this. A person shouldn't be accused of not supporting troops just because we want some clarity on our mission in Iraq."
Of course, the Bush Administration--which has resisted all efforts to provide clarity as regards the Iraq mission--dismissed Feingold's call by claiming that "It would...send the wrong message to our troops. We are serious about completing the mission, and they need to know that they have our full support. And it would send the wrong message to the enemy, who, as the President has said many times, would just then have to wait us out."
In fact, there is nothing further from the truth. As Feingold noted, the former chief of Australia's armed forces, General Peter Cosgrove, has been arguing that the foreign troop presence has fueled terrorist activity in Iraq. Noting that Cosgrove has called for foreign troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2006, Feingold said, "Those remarks were constructive, and we need to be having this discussion here at home. I am putting a vision of when this ends on the table in the hope that we can get the focus back on our top priority, and that is keeping America and the American people safe."
While the White House bumbles deeper into the quagmire, it is Feingold who says he wants to take steps to establish an exit strategy that will "undermine the recruiting efforts and the unity of insurgents, encourage Iraqi ownership of the transition process and bolster the legitimacy of the Iraqi authorities, reassure the American people that our Iraq policy is not directionless and, most importantly, create space for a broader discussion of our real national security priorities."
The differences between the Bush and Feingold approaches are easily explained: Bush refuses to listen even to the concerns of the grieving mothers of America's war dead. Feingold, on the other hand, has listened closely enough to recognize that the American people want a way out of the Iraq mess. And while the Wisconsin senator's way may not be the perfect route--as he readily admits--it provides the impetus for a real debate that honest observers of the crisis have been longing for.
August may be a slow news month, but not for stories about what's wrong with the drug industry. In just one recent week, the New York Times published three articles that exposed what we're up against with Big Pharma--and the weakness of the agency that's supposed to regulate it.
On August 6, "At Midpoint of Vioxx Trial, Merck Looks Battered" explained how the drug company Merck "appears to be in a deep hole" in its court case in Texas, where it was being sued by the family of a Wal-Mart employee, Robert Ernst. The family charged that Ernst died from an arrhythmia caused by the painkiller Vioxx after taking the medicine for eight months. The coroner who did the autopsy on Ernst told the jury that "Vioxx was probably responsible for Mr. Ernst's death," the Times reported. And the jury agreed this afternoon as it found Merck liable in Ernst's death and awarded his widow a settlement of $253 million.
And this is just the first of more than 4,000 other lawsuits in which the company is being sued over Vioxx in state courts in California, Texas and New Jersey and in US federal court, with liabilities for the company potentially running as high as $30 billion.
The second article ran three days later. "Today's Insider Trading Suspect May Wear a Lab Coat" exposes another problem that has led to our unsafe market for prescription drugs. Doctors and scientists are now joining forces with the big drug companies to promote their products and are increasingly "working as consultants to investors, especially hedge funds," the Times reported.
Most important, though, the SEC is "taking a closer look at whether doctors, participating in criminal trials with drug companies, are accepting money to talk to analysts and investors about the confidential results of a trial." (Another piece in the Times from August 16 reported that "nearly 10 percent of the nation's 700,000 doctors have signed up as consultants" on investment deals. And, according to a Times editorial, doctors make anywhere from $200 to $1,000 an hour on consulting.)
The Seattle Times reported, after completing its own investigation, that it found "at least 26 cases in which doctors have leaked confidential and critical details of their ongoing drug research to Wall Street firms." Doctors who did the leaking were affiliated with top universities like UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania as well as companies like Citigroup, Smith Barney and Wachovia.
That's shameful, but it's not shocking. After all, doctors have gotten dinners, vacations and even thousands of dollars in fees from drug companies to attend "conferences" and "summits," where they are informed of the benefits of the wonder drug du jour. In 2002, one cardiologist told the Washington Post that Merck sent a limo to pick him up, take him to dinner and included a bottle of champagne for kicks.
The third article that I found really disturbing, "FDA Will Not Release Some Data on Heart Devices" (August 6), illustrates why these abuses have become so rampant: The FDA has abandoned its responsibility to oversee and regulate the drug industry.
As the story puts it: "The Food and Drug Administration said yesterday that it would not release information that it receives annually from the makers of heart devices detailing how often and why products fail." Protecting such data by calling it a corporate "trade secret," the FDA was pulling the plug on the public's right to information.
The Director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, Dr. Sidney Wolfe, argued in a recent interview that the FDA has become a "formal partner" to drug manufacturers for at least two reasons. First, in 1992, Congress decided that drug companies, not taxpayers, should have to fund the drug review and approval process at the FDA. And so the industry is spending an estimated $350 million this year alone to get its drugs approved, Dr. Wolfe says. Consequently, "Approve now, test later" is the FDA's attitude, Wolfe explained.
The second factor is that Congress has almost totally failed in its responsibility to police the Food and Drug Administration. Committees in Congress used to hold many hearings looking at the FDA's performance, but those days are over. Now, it is up to lone Senators like Chuck Grassley of Iowa to hold the agency's feet to the fire. In a recent floor debate, Grassley said that the agency "is plagued by structural, personnel, cultural and scientific problems." But a lone Senator's voice isn't enough.
In a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, investigative journalist Trudy Lieberman argued that the FDA views the companies it regulates "as clients." That's a fair description. After all, The New England Journal of Medicine reported as early as 2000 that Cox 2 drugs like Vioxx could cause patients to suffer heart attacks, but the FDA refused to force the industry to warn consumers at that time. Similarly, when one safety officer told the FDA's higher-ups that reports had shown that Viagra could lead to the onset of blindness in men, the FDA remained silent. (Thirteen months later, a scientific journal published an article that revealed the problem.)
The FDA also recently rejected the advice of its own advisory panel--which has happened only twice in five decades--that the emergency contraception known as Plan B should be made available to women over the counter. Moreover, the agency failed to warn parents in a timely manner that antidepressants could make kids more likely to commit suicide.
So, what should be done? Dr. Wolfe says that at least four reforms would amount to a good start.
First, he argues that Congress should repeal the 1992 Prescription Drug User Fee Act that "demolished" much of the vigilance that the FDA exerted over the drug industry in previous years. Second, Congress should pass legislation that is being sponsored by senators Dodd and Grassley that will free the Office of Drug Safety from the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. (The FDA has been reluctant to admit problems with medicines once drugs have reached the market. By liberating the Office of Drug Safety from the office that handles the review process, Drug Safety would gain independence, and the FDA might finally begin to warn consumers about drugs that turn out to be unsafe after they've gone on the market.)
Third, more generally, the FDA needs to do a better job of enforcing the law, says Wolfe. In 1998 the FDA stopped 157 illegal prescription drug ads, while in 2004 it stopped only twenty-four illegal ads--an 85 percent decrease in the number of FDA enforcement actions.
Finally, Wolfe believes that if Congress increased the number of hearings it held looking into how the FDA is performing, the FDA would face greater scrutiny and be more likely to protect consumers' health, not the drug industry's profits. Here's hoping Wolfe's sensible ideas take hold.
Candlelight vigils calling for an end to the war in Iraq got underway Wednesday night in a national effort spurred by one mother's antiwar demonstration in Crawford, Texas, outside President Bush's ranch.
The vigils were urged by Cindy Sheehan, who has become the icon of the antiwar movement since she started a protest on August 6 in memory of her son Casey, who died in Iraq last year. Sheehan says she will remain outside the president's ranch until he meets with her and other grieving families, or until his monthlong vacation there ends.
More than 1,600 vigils took place nationwide, according to the organizers, MoveOn.org Political Action, TrueMajority and Democracy for America. A large vigil at Paris' Peace Wall, a glass monument near the Eiffel Tower, also drew thousands of people. And in Crawford itself, an estimated 200 protesters lit candles and gathered around a wooden, flag-draped coffin at Sheehan's growing camp, about a mile from the Bush compound.
One woman has touched the hearts of people coast to coast, moving many to take action themselves, and in the process has reinvigorated the antiwar movement virtually singlehandedly. There are numerous ways you can support Sheehan's protest.
Flood the White House with phone calls. Let them know that you support Sheehan and want Bush to take the time out of his vacation to meet with her. The number for the White House comment line is 202-456-1111.
Send Sheehan a Pink Rose. For five dollars, you can send a pink rose to beautify her arid camp, and a message of support to bolster her spirit. Pink roses traditionally symbolize grace and gratitude.
Add your name to the People's Petition for a Way Out of Iraq. The petition lays out a way to get out of Iraq and will be presented to Congress in September.
Heed the the call from United for Peace and Justice and other activist groups to come to Washington, DC from September 24 to 26 to join what they expect will be a massive weekend of protests against the war in Iraq. Click here for info.
Check out a new website--MeetWithCindy.Org--which makes it easy to help support Sheehan's efforts. The Crawford Peace House is also mobilizing support for Sheehan and assisting visiting activists with logistics support.
We could be close to a tipping-point moment with new polls showing a majority of Americans opposed to the continued occupation of Iraq. So anything you can do at this potentially momentous time could make a real difference.
While debating conservative pundit David Horowitz on Ron Reagan's MSNBC show the other night, I was struck by the desperation with which supporters of the war have turned their fury on Cindy Sheehan, the mother of an American soldier killed in Iraq who has been trying to get an audience with President Bush.
Horowitz, the former left-wing zealot who is now a right-wing zealot, described the woman who has camped out near Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch as "hateful," accused her of dishonoring the memory of her son and promised that if Sheehan and other anti-war activists succeed in bringing an end to the occupation of Iraq then "rivers of blood" will flow in the streets of America. It was a remarkable performance, so much so that even Horowitz admitted that he was "emotional" about the subject.
Of course, Horowitz is wrong, on every point. But it is difficult to get angry with him, or even to take his ranting seriously. When Reagan asked me if I wanted to "dignify" Horowitz's comments with a response, I declined, except to express a measure of sympathy for Horowitz and other true believers who have become so frenzied in their need to defend the Iraq imbroglio that they feel they must attack a grieving mother who wants to make sure that no more parents will have to bury their sons and daughters as a result of the Bush administration's arrogance.
The rapidly dwindling minority of Americans who continue to search for some rationale for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq has been driven to the brink of breakdown by the success of Sheehan's protest. Go to the website of William F. Buckley's National Review magazine and you will find Sheehan described in headlines as "nutty," dismissed by columnists as "the mouthpiece... of howling-at-the-moon, bile-spewing Bush haters" and accused of "sucking up intellectual air" that, presumably, would be better utilized by Condoleezza Rice explaining once more that it would be wrong to read too much into the August 6, 2001, briefing document that declared: "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S." Human Events, the conservative weekly newspaper, dismisses Sheehan as a "professional griever" who "can claim to be in perpetual mourning for her fallen son" -- as if there is some time limit on maternal sorrow over the death of a child.
Fox News Channel spinner-in-chief Bill O'Reilly accuses Sheehan of being "in bed with the radical left," including -- horrors! -- "9-11 families" that are still seeking answers about whether, in the first months of 2001, the Bush administration was more focused on finding excuses to attack Iraq than on protecting Americans from terrorism. And Rush Limbaugh was on the radio the other day ranting about how, "(Sheehan's) story is nothing more than forged documents. There's nothing about it that's real..." (Just to clarify for Limbaugh listeners: Cindy Sheehan's 24-year-old son Casey really did die in Iraq, and his mother really would like to talk with President Bush about all those claims regarding WMDs and al-Qaida ties that the administration used to peddle the "case" for war.)
The pro-war pundits who continue to defend the occupation of Iraq are freaked out by the fact that a grieving mother is calling into question their claim that the only way to "support the troops" is by keeping them in the frontlines of George W. Bush's failed experiment. Bush backers are horrified that Sheehan's sincere and patriotic anti-war voice has captured the nation's attention.
What the pro-war crowd does not understand is that Cindy Sheehan is not inspiring opposition to the occupation. She is merely putting a face on the mainstream sentiments of a country that has stopped believing the president's promises with regard to Iraq. According to the latest Newsweek poll, 61 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush's handing of the war, while just 26 percent support the president's argument that large numbers of U.S. military personnel should remain in Iraq for as long as it takes to achieve the administration's goals there.
The supporters of this war have run out of convincing lies and effective emotional appeals. Now, they are reduced to attacking the grieving mothers of dead soldiers. Samuel Johnson suggested that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. But, with their attacks on Cindy Sheehan, the apologists for George Bush's infamy have found a new and darker refuge.
I remain on a vacation (well-deserved, if I do say so), but I did post the below item on my personal blog at www.davidcorn.com. If you're not a regular visitor there, please become one.
The spin never ends. In a New York Times op-ed piece published on Tuesday, former Senator Bob Dole, the hapless 1996 GOP presidential nominee, backs proposed legislation that would protect (to a large degree) a reporter's confidential relationship with a source. That's all fine and well, but Dole also takes the occasion to disinform about the Rove scandal. The piece opens:
Like many Americans, I am perplexed by the federal investigation into the alleged leak of classified information that exposed Valerie Plame Wilson, the wife of Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador, as a Central Intelligence Agency officer.
Why is he perplexed? Classified information was leaked. It was not an "alleged leak." The leak did occur. No one disputes that. And the CIA has repeatedly said the information that was leaked--Valerie Wilson's employment status at the CIA--was classified information. The Justice Department, which initiated the investigation, presumably agrees. (Otherwise, why investigate?) And we now know that Karl Rove (at least) twice shared this classified information with reporters Bob Novak and Matt Cooper and that Scooter Libby shared it (at least) once with Cooper. Yet Dole, following the lead of conservative spinners, diminishes the matter as an "alleged leak" and writes it off as oh-so-puzzling. There's noting perplexing about special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's mission.
So far the special prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, has achieved one notable result: putting a New York Times reporter, Judith Miller, in jail for refusing to break her promise of confidentiality to her sources in response to a grand jury subpoena.
Here Dole is pandering to his audience--or the editors of the Times. Prosecutor do not tend to achieve any "notable" result until he or she ends his or her investigation and brings indictments. There is nothing odd in that Fitzgerald has not produced any results yet. True, he has chased Miller into jail, and that does distinguish his inquiry from most investigations conducted by US attorneys. But again Dole is doing his disingenuous best to falsely portray Fitzgerald's work, which remains unfinished.
Next Dole writes:
The incarceration of Ms. Miller is all the more baffling because she has never written a word about the C.I.A. flap.
There is nothing "baffling" about Fitzgerald's pursuit of Miller. Sure, the public does not know exactly why Fitzgerald went after Miller. But Fitzgerald did make his reasons known to several federal judges, and they have each supported him on this point. Obviously, Fitzgerald has cause to believe that Miller had a significant communication with a suspect or a person of interest. Fitzgerald probably gathered evidence or testimony suggesting such a communication occurred. And Fitzgerald wants whatever information he considers critical. This is not at all baffling.
Later in the article, Dole misrepresents the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, which he cosponsored in 1982:
[T]he act was drafted in very narrow terms: our goal was to criminalize only those disclosures that clearly represented a conscious and pernicious effort to identify and expose agents with the intent to impair America's foreign intelligence activities.
I hope Dole paid more attention to the details of legislation when he served in the Senate. This is not what the law says. There is no intent to harm standard. Government officials who disclose identifying information about an undercover US intelligence officer can be prosecuted whether they leaked the information for such a purpose or not. There is a portion of the law that does apply to non-government individuals who engage in a pattern of exposure designed to thwart US intelligence efforts. But the provisions of the law that apply to government officials say nothing about intent or a pattern. Under these provisions, the reason for the leak is irrelevant.
Dole also maintains that the CIA was not taking "affirmative measures" to protect Valerie Wilson (a the law in question requires for a prosecution). How does Dole know what the CIA was or was not doing? He writes:
[W]e now know that Ms. Wilson held a desk job at C.I.A. headquarters and could be seen traveling to and from work.
Here we go again. It's the same old canard: Valerie Wilson was not really undercover. I've written about this plenty in the past. Suffice it to say that the CIA was indeed still preserving her cover--perhaps only to protect her potential to return to the field and/or to protect her past operations and contacts. But the CIA did try to wave Novak off the story, according to former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow. And by referring the matter to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, the CIA indicated that it believed it was taking affirmative measures" to preserve he undercover status. Moreover, who saw her "traveling to and from work"? Her neighbors have repeatedly said they did not know she was heading to Langley when she left for work in the morning. And one cannot stand in front of the CIA compound and watch people coming and going. So who was spying on her? By the way, there are plenty of undercover CIA officials who work at CIA HQ. Are they also being watched by Dole's watchers?
Of all the misleading spin I've read recently on this case, this point--that Valerie Wilson could be spotted commuting to the CIA--is particularly absurd. It leads me to wonder: who wrote this piece for Dole? One does not have to be a CIA veteran to see that Dole is fronting for someone. It would have been rather informative if the Times had listed Dole's ghostwriter on the byline, for it is probably this person who is most responsible for the disinformation being transmitted to the public via this article. If Dole wants us to take his article seriously, then he should tell us who his source is.
A campaign is being launched this week by a host of groups including Progressive Democrats of America, Peace Action and others to demand an exit strategy from Iraq. A central part of these efforts is a new petition which lays out a way to get out of Iraq and will be presented to Congress in mid-September.
This comes at what could be a tipping point moment. The country is waking up to the truth that Bush's decisions have led to the unnecessary deaths of more than 1,800 Americans, and tens of thousands of Iraqis, while making the US, the world and Iraq less secure. A majority of Americans now understand that we were deliberately misled into war; a majority recognize that the US made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq; and a majority believe that no matter how long US troops remain there, they will not be able to establish a stable, democratic government.
Cindy Sheehan's dignified and defiant stance in Crawford has highlighted the callousness of a President who lacks the compassion to grieve or mourn for those he sent into battle. As E.L. Doctorow wrote last year, "I fault this president for not knowing what death is...He does not feel a personal responsibility for the thousand dead young men and women who wanted to be what they could be."
President Bush should meet with Sheehan. But, even more important, he should listen to the grieving mother, and to the growing number of military families and citizens who are demanding an end to the disastrous occupation of Iraq. Bush should also listen to those who will testify at informal Congressional hearings--now expected on the eve of the September 24 to 26 antiwar demonstrations--designed to explore possible exit strategies. It is anticipated that leading US academics, opposition politicians, civil society activists and Iraqi parliamentarians seeking an end to US occupation will testify.
And for those interested in an honorable and speedy exit strategy, please read, circulate and sign the petition published below. The petition is a response and challenge to the charge that peace and security advocates have no plan. The truth is that Secretary Rumsfeld has no exit strategy--only a "victory strategy." The truth is that the leadership of the Democratic Party has offered no alternative to Bush's policies beyond invading Falluja, adding more American troops, training more Iraqis and providing better body armor. All these policies are failing and will continue to fail. But there is another option: adopting a framework of conflict resolution as the alternative to permanent war and occupation.
Last August, we lived through the filth of the Swift Boat Veterans' mendacious attacks on John Kerry. One year later, America's attention is riveted by the moral protest emanating from Camp Crawford. What was once considered "marginal" is now at the center of our national conversation. Perhaps most significant, a large majority of people in this country agree with Sheehan that some or all US troops should be withdrawn from Iraq. If you're one of them, read the petition below and click here to add your name to this growing antiwar effort.
A Petition for an Iraqi Peace Process
"For Mr. Bush, questions about an exit strategy in Iraq have become especially delicate as a crowd of anti-war protestors has expanded at the edge of his ranch, rallying around Cindy Sheehan, the California woman whose son Casey was killed in Iraq in 2004."--New York Times, Aug. 12, 2005.
Like our friend Cindy Sheehan, we are tired of waiting for our troops to come home. We are tired of the bloodshed, tired of tax dollar waste, tired of torture cover-ups, tired of contractor scandals, tired of deceit and fabrication. We are tired of elected officials with profiles in compromise rather than courage.
It is dishonest to admit there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, only to invent new reasons for inflicting mass destruction on that country.
It is dishonorable to fix the facts around the policy.
It is unacceptable to admit that going to war was a mistake, only to claim that the mistake must be perpetuated.
Because we cannot wait for our government to lead, we shall become leaders in ending the war ourselves. We shall propose an exit strategy from Iraq and demand that our government listen and follow. Because we cannot wait for our government to plan for peace, we call on civil society to make our government pay attention.
There are simply no military solutions to this bloodshed. The American military presence, threatening to Iraqi nationalism, religion and culture, is the main cause of the violent response from Iraqis. US policies are pushing Iraq toward civil war, with our government funding and arming Shiites and Kurds against Sunnis. Nearly half of the Iraqi national assembly has called for the "departure of the occupation". The State Department's own internal surveys show that a majority of Iraqis feel less safe in the presence of the American occupying forces. Since the invasion and occupation, the status and safety of women in Iraq have declined precipitously.
Iraqis themselves are calling for the end of occupation. One million recently signed a petition demanding the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq. Initial peace talks among Iraqis are already underway. Our government is deaf to these Iraqi voices for peace.
It is time to shift from a military model to a conflict-resolution model aimed at a peace process and negotiated political settlement.
We propose the following principles as essential to ending the war in Iraq:
First, as a confidence-building measure, the US government must declare that it has no interest in permanent military bases or the control of Iraqi oil or other resources.
Second, as a further confidence-building measure, the U.S. government must set goals for ending the occupation and bringing all our troops home - in months, not years, beginning with an initial withdrawal of troops by the end of this year.
Third, the US government must request that the United Nations monitor the process of military disengagement and de-escalation, and organize a peaceful reconstruction effort. The US must accept its obligation to fairly compensate Iraqis for damages, assist Iraqi reconstruction, cease the imposition of privatization schemes, and end the dominance of US contractors in the bidding process.
Fourth, the US government should appoint a peace envoy independent of the occupation authorities to underscore its commitment to an entirely different mission, that of a peace process ending the occupation and returning our soldiers home.
Fifth, the peace envoy should encourage and cooperate in talks with Iraqi groups opposed to the occupation, including insurgents, to explore a political settlement. The settlement must include representation of opposition forces and parties, and power-sharing and the protection of women's rights as core principles of governance and economic and energy development. We believe such an initiative will reduce, though not eliminate, violence by lessening any rationale for Jihadist or sectarian conflict.
We send this message to all Americans in civil society, to our elected officials, and to the global peace movement. We demand that Congressional hearings begin to define an exit strategy now. We demand that members of Congress, reflecting the will of the people, adopt policy and budget initiatives that call for an exit strategy based on the above principles. We demand a peace envoy, peace talks with the opposition, reconstruction, the closure of US bases, and the safe return home of all US troops.
One need not be a student of Tom DeLay's dirty dealings to recognize that the corruption of Washington is very nearly complete. Occupied by a president and vice president who are oilmen first and statesmen last, a Congress where Republicans and Democrats delay their votes until they have checked their campaign fund-raising receipts and a judiciary that is rapidly being packed with "bought" corporate lawyers such as Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, the nation's capital often seems completely beyond redemption.
It is not quite so true in the nation's 50 state capitals, however. Despite the ugliest efforts of corporate America -- via a lobbying frontgroup, the American Legislative Exchange Council -- to warp the process from Augusta (Maine) to Sacremento (California) as thoroughly as it has in Washington, there are still openings for progressive policymaking at the state level. Those openings are the target of the new Progressive Legislative Action Network (PLAN), a coalition developed to provide reform-minded legislators with strategic and research support as they seek to address the pressing economic and social issues that are left untended in a time of corporate hegemony.
"The goal is to bring as diverse a coalition together as possible so that our side has a cohesive agenda in the states," says David Sirota, the veteran progressive activist who has helped organize the network. "For too long, conservatives have been able to use huge sums of money to push the most radical right-wing policies through state legislatures. PLAN is committed to putting together the necessary resources and necessary coalitions to help progressive legislators stop this unchecked extremism, and start passing legislation that makes state governments work for ordinary citizens, not just monied special interests."
PLAN was set to formally launch Tuesday in Seattle, where the National Conference of State Legislatures gathers this week for its 2005 "Strong States, Strong Nation" annual meeting. The launch features appearances by former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president who has reemerged as an aggressive advocate for political and economic initiatives aimed addressing the gap between rich and poor in the United States, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who for many years was the most powerful player in the California state Assembly, and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, whose 2004 election proved that progressive Democratic reformers can win in so-called "red states." The launch is being co-sponsored by MoveOn.org, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the United Steelworkers union, and progressive philanthropists Andy and Deborah Rappaport -- support that provides an encouraging indication of the openness of powerful players on the left to the state-based work that will provide the models for renewal of the progressive movement nationally.
"Starting in the states" is not a new idea. In fact, most significant reform movements in American history have begun at the municipal or state level and built upward. At the dawn of the past century, the state-based progressive movements of the upper Midwest created what Justice Louis D. Brandeis referred to as "laboratories of democracy," where problems were addressed by creative legislators and governors in ways that federal officials eventually chose to mirror -- at first in the form of individual initiatives on issues such as child labor but ultimately with Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.
Sirota, who has worked as an aide to U.S. Representatives Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and David Obey, D-Wisconsin, and his PLAN co-chair, former Montana State Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty, know that while there are important precedents for state-based work, there are also mighty challenges. ALEC, the corporate-funded legislative network, has been polluting the process for decades, building alliances with both Republican and Democratic legislators; and corporate interests have begun to pour money not only into legislative contests but into races for state judgeships and attorney general and public service commission posts. Additionally, an increasingly corporatized and homogenized media no longer provides the distinct coverage of state politics that was the norm 100, or even 20, years ago.
Previous attempts to develop progressive alternatives to ALEC, in particular, and corporate influence, in general, at the state level have met with mixed success. And there are no guarantees that PLAN will be any more successful. But there are reasons to be encouraged. Sirota and Doherty are smart players with strong track records of progressive activism in challenging settings. They have headquartered their group in Helena, Montana, rather than Washington. And they have chosen an unapologetic approach best evidenced by Sirota's remarks at this month's Steelworkers union convention, where he told delegates, "Washington, DC, today is so overrun by Big Money and so controlled by an entrenched party establishment that there is almost no hope to change things there in the short run. And more important, truly successful movements in American history have always started at the grassroots level, not in the insulated halls of elite power. Why? Because Corporate America has a harder time controlling fifty states than it does controlling one city. It is easier to buy off one set of politicians than it is to buy off fifty separate political arenas. Additionally, state lawmakers are inherently closer to the concerns of their constituents than any Washington politician ever could be."
Sirota's got his history right. And he's got his politics right. Recognizing that "there are literally hundreds of state lawmakers all over America right now ready to fight on behalf of ordinary, hard-working Americans, ready to start helping citizens raise their wages, improve their access to healthcare, protect their pensions and, in general, secure their economic future," he says that with this base of progressive legislators, "Now it is time to fight back."
While the time is right, and the need to begin chalking up victories at the state level is more pressing than at any point since the last progressive movement took form, PLAN's organizers understand that they are in entering a serious fight. Until there is fundamental campaign finance and ethics law reform, corporate interests will always be able to buy legislative influence with campaign contributions and huge lobbying expenditures. Progressive interests must rely on the willingness of honest legislators in both parties to entertain their ideas, and on popular pressure from grassroots groups.
While the task is daunting, the initiative is worth undertaking.As Louis Brandeis noted decades ago, "one of the happy incidents of the federal system (is) that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments." Ultimately, the justice explained, states can lead the nation in a process that will "remould, through experimentation, our economic practices and institutions to meet changing social and economic needs."
So what's PLAN's plan? Hopefully, to prove that the wisdom of Brandeis with regard to state-based activism has carried through to the 21st century.
This past weekend, thousands of activists gathered at Los Alamos and other prominent nuclear facilities across the country to mark the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Japan. As demonstrators chanted "No more Hiroshimas! No more Nagasakis!," President Bush chose to honor the anniversary in another way: by proceeding with his plans to build newer, even more powerful nukes.
Last month, the Senate approved Bush's initial request of $4 million for research on a "robust nuclear earth penetrator" (RNEP)--a bomb that George Monbiot of the UK Guardian writes, has "a yield about 10 times that of the Hiroshima device." For all Bush has done to condemn the global proliferation of WMD, his actions are almost single-handedly destroying the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a pact signed by nearly 200 nations.
But Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey--co-chair of the recently revamped Congressional Progressive Caucus--is taking a stand against Bush's hypocrisy. On July 20th, she introduced a resolution calling for the president to fulfill his obligation to the Non-Proliferation Treaty by beginning "verifiable and irreversible reductions in the United States strategic and tactical nuclear weapons and their delivery systems." "There will be no security for America or our world," Woolsey says, "unless we take all steps necessary for nuclear disarmament."
Woolsey's bill is one of several bold new initiatives launched by members of the Progressive Caucus to try to open the suffocating consensus (especially on national security issues) in Congress. Since hiring Bill Goold as the CPC's first full-time staffer, Woolsey and her colleagues have drawn up several strong, sensible resolutions for withdrawal from Iraq and issued a powerful statement of core values in their "Progressive Promise."
Woolsey's H.Res.373 aims to fulfill one of the objectives outlined in the Promise: "To re-build US alliances around the world, restore international respect for American power and influence, and reaffirm our nation's constructive engagement in the United Nations and other multilateral organizations."
At a time in which America's relations with the world continue to be sullied by the politics of Boltonism, voices like Woolsey's are critical. To join the fight against Bush's nuclear nonsense, call your representatives and urge them to support H.Res.373.
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Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.
George Bush is on vacation in Crawford, Texas, taking the same August-long break that he did in the summer before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The appeal of Crawford appears to be that it provides the President with an opportunity to put aside all the troubles of the world and to focus on fixing fences and clearing brush. After all, it was during his previous vacation that Bush ignored an August 6, 2001, briefing document titled: "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S."
Bush's inner circle, a collection of neoconservative ideologues with an agenda of their own rather than an interest in what is best for the United States, made no effort in 2001 to steer the President's attention toward pressing matters of national security. And they remain determined to keep the woefully disengaged chief executive focused on busy work around the ranch rather than life-and-death questions of how this country should position itself in a complex and dangerous world.
But this summer, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq named Cindy Sheehan is making it harder for Bush to ignore the truth that his decisions have led to the unnecessary deaths of more than 1,800 Americans, and tens of thousands of Iraqis, while making both the United States and Iraq more vulnerable to violence.
Sheehan's 24-year-old son, Army Specialist Casey A. Sheehan, died on April 4, 2004--almost a year after Bush was dressed up in flight-suit drag to appear before a banner that declared "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq. Sheehan mourned, as any mother would. But then she organized, helping to found Gold Star Families for Peace, an organization of relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq who are demanding an end to the ill-fated occupation of that land and a redirection of US policy to achieve real security--as opposed to neoconservative misadventuring.
On August 3 of this year, Bush addressed the mounting death toll in Iraq with a pair of declarations:
1. "We have to honor the sacrifices of the fallen by completing the mission."
2. "The families of the fallen can be assured that they died for a noble cause."
Sheehan correctly identified Bush's words as "asinine and hurtful." And she headed for Crawford to try and confront the President on the August 6 anniversary of that neglected memorandum on bin Laden's intentions.
Sheehan went to Crawford with a pair of messages for the vacationing president:
1. We want our loved ones sacrifices to be honored by bringing our nation's sons and daughters home from the travesty that is Iraq immediately, since this war is based on horrendous lies and deceptions. Just because our children are dead, why would we want any more families to suffer the same pain and devastation that we are?
2. We would like for him to explain this "noble cause" to us and ask him why (presidential daughters) Jenna and Barbara are not in harm's way, if the cause is so noble.
Sheehan's bottom line, and that of Gold Star Families for Peace, is a blunt truth that the President has failed to consider: that the best way to honor the sacrifices of those who have died in Iraq is to end the occupation and bring the troops home now.
So far, the President has refused to listen to Cindy Sheehan, who says, "The sound I do want to hear is the sound of a nation waking up." But that wake-up call is being heard by the majority of Americans. In the latest Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, 54 percent of Americans surveyed said the US made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq. That number is up eight points from July. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said the Bush Administration deliberately misled the public about the reasons for going to war. Fifty-eight percent said that, no matter how long US troops remain in Iraq, they will not be able to establish a stable, democratic government there.
George Bush has been listening for too long to Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condi Rice. He should take a real vacation from the neocon fantasy factory of his misguided aides and sit down with someone who can introduce him to the reality of what is going on in Iraq and the world. The President should meet with Cindy Sheehan. And he should listen to this woman, who has sacrificed more than he or anyone in his inner circle ever has for America.
There are many reasons why Cindy Sheehan is attracting a flood of media attention. The mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, Sheehan is camping out near President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas and says she won't leave until Bush agrees to meet with her to discuss the war. With a compelling personal narrative, an articulate voice and an obvious mainstream pedigree, Sheehan is tapping into a growing popular feeling that the Bush Administration is out of touch with the realities of the Iraq war.
This past Saturday, Bush's national security adviser and the White House deputy chief of staff were dispatched to meet with Sheehan beside a road a few miles from Bush's ranch, but she is still insisting on a meeting with the president before she will end her vigil. So far, the White House has adamantly refused but this refusal is starting to exact major public relations costs. With what Maureen Dowd called the "absolute" moral authority of a mother who has lost her son to war, Sheehan's protest is giving voice to a question more and more Americans are--finally--asking: Why did we invade Iraq?
Sen. George Allen (Republican, Va.) has publicly encouraged the President to meet with Sheehan and answer her questions. Click here and urge your elected reps to make the same public call. There's also a new website--MeetWithCindy.Org--which makes it easy to help support Sheehan's efforts, whether you want to make plans to go to Crawford or whether you want to make it possible for others to do the same. The Crawford Peace House is also mobilizing support for Sheehan.
As Sheehan herself wrote last month in a piece posted on the Common Dreams site, "I want to hear the sound of our children getting off planes and boats from Iraq to the joyful squealing of their children and the deep sighs of relief from their spouses, parents, and other loved ones. I want to hear our citizenry lifting up their voices in chorus and singing, 'We will never let this happen again.'"
Help make her vision a reality.
Bonus Link:Read Cindy Sheehan's report on why she's protesting in Crawford, published yesterday on The Huffington Post.