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A Democratic Litmus Test

A disturbing story in The Washington Post yesterday suggested that Congress is losing its cojones when it comes to closing some of the most obscene tax loopholes benefiting the richest of the rich--hedge funders and private equity managers.

According to The Post, proposals to increase tax rates on private equity partnerships like Blackstone from a 15 percent capital gains rate to a 35 percent corporate rate led to "private-equity funds dispens[ing] at least $5.5 million for lobbying assistance" in the first six months of this year.

That kind of pay-to-play politics may be one reason the Senate seems to be balking at raising the tax rates on the profit paid to fund managers--called "carried interest"--which as the New York Times pointed out is a "euphemism for the hefty performance fees that fund managers haul in." That particular loophole allows managers to pay lower tax rates on their income than the average American worker, as I posted previously. The Senate is also considering limiting the rate increase only to private partnerships that trade publicly as corporations--even though most of the private equity and hedge fund firms are private. And those publicly traded firms would be allowed a 5-year grace period before seeing the increased rate--this at a time when the war is draining our nation's treasury to the tune of $12 billion per month and a serious public investment agenda is desperately needed.

We already know where Republicans stand when it comes to protecting Big Business at the expense of helping ordinary Americans. But if the Democrats can't move on this very basic issue of tax fairness then they will have failed this critical litmus test: does the party stand for working people or doesn't it?

Sheehan Seeks a More Principled Politics

In California, where Cindy Sheehan proposes to mount an independent anti-war challenge to cautious House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the political structures used to err on the side of candidates who opted for principles over partisanship. Once in the not so distant past, a Cindy Sheehan or anyone else frustrated by the failure of a Pelosi to work effectively to end the war in Iraq and to hold those responsible for it to account, would have found it much easier to take on so powerful a figure.

In the progressive era in California, contenders for Congress were allowed to run in the primary of any party they chose. In fact, they could run in the primary of every party at the same time. If the candidate won more than one nomination, he or she could then "fuse" their votes from various ballot lines into a whole in the November contest – allowing populist contenders to mount universal appeals and allowing voters to respond to them as they saw fit.

This "cross-filing" option – under which candidates petitioned their way onto the ballots of multiple parties -- was established early in the 20th century as a means to break the grip of party bosses and the corporate special-interest groups with which they were aligned. It was one of many progressive reforms – open primaries, direct election of senators, initiatives and referendums and the lifting of restrictions on third parties -- adopted at the time with the purpose of freeing up political processes that had been rendered moribund by insider control and anti-democratic structures.

The reforms were enacted with the encouragement of a broad national movement led by Wisconsin Governor and then Senator Robert M. La Follette. Like the best of the progressives, La Follette saw political parties as vehicles for advancing ideas and expanding representation of the people, not as ends in themselves.

That's a point that Sheehan understands better than most of today's prominent political figures, and it is a part of what makes her decision to campaign as an non-partisan independent activist such an invigorating prospect.

Like the progressives of old, and like anyone who tries to push the boundaries not merely of electioneering but of our imaginations, Sheehan is taking her hits for daring to make this run. But even those people of good will who choose not to support Sheehan – either because they honestly prefer Pelosi or because they think that it is more important to fight the political battles of 2008 elsewhere – should recognize that the principled determination of the nation's best-known anti-war activist to seek a more meaningful politics is worthy of respect. And for many reasonable and politically pragmatic Americans, whose disenchantment with today's politics has only been heightened by the sorry spectacle of a Democratic Congress struggling to get its footing in a wrestling match with a Republican president whose clumsiness should have made it an easy fight, that respect will translate to support.

In an important sense, Sheehan mounts her campaign the not in the contemporary California tradition of Pelosi – a transplanted Marylander from an old Democratic machine family in Baltimore – but in the deeper tradition of a remarkable native Californian who rejected the bonds of partisanship in favor of a genuinely representative and often radical politics.

California's progressive reforms of the last century swept into the state's governorship La Follette's comrade and later ally in the great struggles against war, empire and imperialism, Hiram Johnson. Johnson was the ultimate principle-over-party man. Two years after his election to the governorship in 1910 as a titular Republican, he left the party to join Teddy Roosevelt on the 1912 Progressive "Bull Moose" presidential ticket. Twenty years later, as a Republican senator, Johnson abandoned his party to campaign for Democrat Franklin Roosevelt in realigning election of 1932. And serving in the Senate from 1917 to 1945, he crossed the aisle to work – in that dramatically more diverse and representative time -- with Democrats, Progressives, Farmer-Laborites and Independents who chose to challenge economic and foreign-policy elites.

Johnson enjoyed the freedom to support the best candidates, and to champion peace, equality and economic democracy, because he regularly entered and won primaries on multiple party lines – securing reelection in several years as the candidate of the Republican, Democratic and Progressive parties. He was bossed by his ideals and by his constituents, not party leaders and campaign donors.

Unfortunately, after Johnson's death, California politicians associated with Richard Nixon undid progressive political policies and structures in order to restore the influence of party and money. By the late 1950s, they had succeeded in eliminating the "cross-filing" rule, and in so doing they broke not just with progressivism but with the core principles of the American experiment that La Follette and Johnson sought to renew. No less a founding figure than James Madison warned that political partisanship focused on the mere securing of power rather than the advocating of bold ideals was a "dangerous vice" that led to the "instability, injustice, and confusion (that) have, in truth, been the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished…"

Cindy Sheehan, who will be honored Saturday in Baraboo, Wisconsin, at Fighting Bob Fest's annual celebration of La Follette's legacy of anti-war and anti-corporate activism, mounts her 2008 challenge to Pelosi as an independent progressive. Were she running in 1918 or 1948, she could have taken advantage of California's then more open politics to run as a Democrat, Republican, Green and Libertarian, which would have suited her politically adventurous spirit. But the "cross-filing" option is closed to her. In a narrower political sphere, defined by party and interest rather than ideals and patriotism, her choices and those of the voters are constrained in a manner designed to favor party elites and their even more elite allies.

Cindy Sheehan may not turn out to be a perfect candidate – although she will prove far abler and potentially far more successful contender than her casual critics imagine -- and 2008 may not be the perfect year for her to try and break the stranglehold of excessive partisanship that has rendered American elections so frustrating and frequently meaningless. But she has an opportunity to deliver a perfect message: American politics needs to be freer, more open, more exciting and, yes, more unsettling.

The status quo of two parties with bitterly competing electoral strategies but one frame of reference when it comes to so many of the critical demands of governance has not made America safer, more just or more free. Rather, it has confirmed the worst fears of the progressives – and of the founders – about a nation guided by a surplus of partisanship and a deficit of principle. To the extent that Sheehan speaks to those fears and counters them with a promise of a purer politics – a politics steeped in the best traditions of Hiram Johnson, Bob La Follette and their progressive allies – her race will be a redeeming and refreshing reminder that elections can be about more than petty partisanship.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Not Waiting For Petraeus

What's left of the Republican Party in the Northeast is once again feeling anxious about the war in Iraq. They've been told over and over by party leaders to "wait until September." Well, September is here and six House Republicans don't need to hear from General Petreaus in order to make up their minds.

"Next week, General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will submit a very important report to Congress regarding efforts to quell violence and reach political compromise in Iraq," they state in a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner. "While we are hopeful that their report will show progress, we should not wait any longer to come together in support of a responsible post-surge strategy to safely bring our troops home to their families."

The letter was signed by GOP Reps. Mike Castle, Phil English, Scott Garrett, Jim Gerlach, Charlie Dent, Thomas Petri and House Democrats John Tanner, Tim Mahoney, Allen Boyd, Bob Brady and Dennis Cardoza, leaders of the party's Blue Dog wing.

Despite a relentless PR campaign to sell the surge, increased GOP defections spell more bad news for the White House, as moderate Republicans join with conservative Democrats in calling for a "bipartisan strategy to stabilize the country and bring our troops home."

Facing Down Poverty

Last week, President Bush cited the recent Census Report as proof "that more of our citizens are doing better in this economy, with continued rising incomes and more Americans pulling themselves out of poverty." Welcome to the latest episode of Fantasy Island with George Bush.

In fact, as a recent New York Times editorial notes, the 2005 data which the Census Report is based on (and therefore doesn't even account for those suffering from the recent credit crisis) "underscores how the gains from economic growth have failed to benefit most of the population," and that "the gains against poverty last year were remarkably narrow." Since Bush came to power poverty has risen by 9 percent.

And with the passing of the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, there is a sense that the window of opportunity the disaster opened to put poverty back on the national agenda has now closed, with too little political leadership and a media that stopped paying attention.

But while the White House and too many in Congress have indeed turned their backs on New Orleans and Americans struggling to make ends meet, Mark Greenberg, director of the Center for American Progress' (CAP) Task Force on Poverty, says that there has in fact been a "resurgence of interest" in dealing with poverty in America. He says that when it comes to NGO's, and some cities and states, the focus and determination to address the economic pain and hardship that Americans witnessed during Katrina has persisted.

Greenberg points to the US Conference of Mayors Task Force on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. Faith groups like Catholic Charities, Sojourners/Call to Renewal, and Jewish Council on Public Affairs who have "intensified their efforts." Cities like Milwaukee, Savannah, Kalamazoo, Portland, and New York. And three states with poverty commissions – Connecticut, Vermont, and Minnesota – the first two focused on child poverty and the latter on ending poverty by 2020.

"Developments like these are steps forward," Greenberg says. "It's far short of where we want to be, but it's real progress."

In 2004, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to write poverty reduction into a public act, mandating a 50 percent reduction in child poverty by 2014 and establishing the Child Poverty Prevention and Reduction Council. The Council makes recommendations on how to meet the 10-year goal but its up to others to ensure legislative action.

"Since our legislature is controlled by Democrats and the Executive branch by Republicans, there is often a chasm that divides priorities, so we lose important pieces like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and have to go back yearly to fight for them," says Juliet Manalan, Government and Public Relations Specialist for the Connecticut Association for Community Action (CAFCA). CAFCA is the umbrella organization for the state's 12 federally designated anti-poverty agencies from the 1960s War on Poverty.

In April, CAFCA convened the Connecticut Symposium on Child Poverty Reduction to develop a blueprint for action which stakeholders – agencies, business and advocacy groups, education institutions, and public policymakers – could use to address issues of poverty in a cohesive way. There was consensus on the need to establish a refundable state EITC program to supplement low-wage parents' income. (The EITC is a refundable tax credit that supplements the earnings of low- and moderate-income workers); increase parents' access to literacy, post-secondary, and vocational education; strengthen the state's Individual Development Account (IDA) program to assist in the accumulation of assets and enhance matched savings accounts; increase affordable child care so that parents can pursue work and/or education and children are prepared for success in school; ensure public or private health care coverage for families as well as access to providers; support young, at-risk families through home visiting medical and social services which enhance parent/child interaction, parent education, work and life skills, and broaden access to community resources.

In September, CAFCA will again convene over 300 participants for its "Ending Child Poverty: Investing in Our Future" annual conference. "We will provide more information on legislative efforts, business and community partnerships, policy initiatives, and workshops to support the efforts of frontline case management staff," Manalan said. "Connecticut is doing the work and building the coalitions necessary to produce lasting change."

Those coalitions are especially necessary at a time when opponents of change are digging in. There was a legislative attempt to sunset the requirement for Council recommendations this year, which would make it more difficult to track the effectiveness of anti-poverty measures as well as the scope of poverty.

"There are a lot of great people on the Council," Manalan says. "We know the body can be successful, provided the reporting requirements don't disappear."

This year, Vermont also passed legislation to create a Vermont Childhood Poverty Council and develop a strategy to reduce child poverty by 50% in ten years. According to the Rutland Herald, the bill was modeled after the Connecticut initiative. The Poverty Council will hold hearings in all 14 of the state's counties – meeting with citizens and frontline advocates – before issuing a report to the Legislature in January.

"One of my short term goals for the Council is to bring the issue back into the political conversation here in Vermont," council co-chair, Senator Doug Racine, tells me. "In fact, this is necessary if we're to make progress."

Council co-chair, Representative Ann Pugh, told the Herald: "We want to visit the four corners of the state and meet directly with people. It would be easy to hold a public hearing in Montpelier that would be filled with policymakers, but that's not what we want to do."

Racine says the 50 percent child poverty reduction goal is an ambitious one "but it's attainable."

"While we understand that state policies may not be enough in the absence of changes in Washington on tax policies and spending priorities," Racine says, "I believe that we can make significant progress if poverty becomes a high priority issue."

Greenberg agrees that leadership in Washington is necessary in order to achieve needed change. "This can't just be about the federal government," he says. "But in the long run the nation can't make dramatic progress without the federal government, and it's been the noticeably missing partner for the last number of years."

Some members of Congress are working hard to bring attention to the issue. Greenberg points to Ways and Means Committee chair, Charles Rangel, who speaks of the need to address poverty as part of a national security strategy. Rangel started off the year by holding a hearing to examine the economic costs of poverty. Economist Harry Holzer testified that the cost of sustained childhood poverty is in range of $500 billion dollars a year, roughly evenly divided between lowered productivity, increased health care costs, and increased crime-related costs. Holzer took a conservative approach, examining a set of variables that are readily quantifiable. A Republican scholar testifying at the hearing called the study "superb." As a result, this figure is one that is increasingly incorporated into analysis of poverty. (On the flip side, Rangel supports "paygo" which makes it much more difficult to get the money to invest in cutting poverty.)

Representative Jim McDermott has also played a key role as chair of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support. Recently, Greenberg and others testified before McDermott's Committee on shortcomings regarding how we measure poverty in America – inadequacies in measuring the scope of the problem and the impact of anti-poverty efforts.

But it is Representative Barbara Lee – co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and also the Out of Poverty Caucus – who along with 13 co-sponsors is introducing the boldest legislation, incorporating the recommendations of the CAP Poverty Task Force and setting a national goal to reduce poverty by 50 percent over the next ten years.

Greenberg points to real progress already being achieved such as new minimum wage laws and expanded state EITCs. And, he says, the poverty commissions will promote overall development of state strategy, bring the issues to the forefront, promote accountability, and hopefully lead to stronger action at the federal level.

For decades Americans have heard the tired refrain, "We waged a war on Poverty and Poverty won." Taking on that view, Greenberg says, "It's a very common challenge in a discussion about poverty. It's clear from polling that people wish something could be done but they fear that government action always goes wrong or is counterproductive. But the real story of why poverty stopped falling after the early 70's isn't failed government policies. The biggest factor has been that since that time economic growth has been slower and much less equitably distributed. The fact is we've learned a lot about how to reduce poverty and we know things that work. It's ultimately a question of political will."

There is hope that many good leaders, activists and organizations across the nation are committed to the fight against poverty. We need to pay attention, and bring that energy and focus back to places like New Orleans, and demand that our political representatives do the same. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once told us, "We may not all be guilty, but we are all responsible."

Former Senator Larry Craig, R-Bathroom

After forcing Idaho Senator Larry Craig to resign for the twin "crimes" of being a fool and appearing to be gay, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, tried as hard as he could to seem sorry for the man whose trip to the wrong bathroom on the wrong day cost him a Senate seat.

"It is my hope he will be remembered not for this, but for his three decades of dedicated public service," chirped McConnell, who just days before was denouncing Craig's "unforgivable" desires, sicking the ethics committee on the misdemeanor senator and stripping him of his committee assignments.

Republicans leaders, who took no action against let-the-good-times-roll Senator David Vitter after the Louisiana Republican's penchant for prostitutes was revealed, couldn't get Craig out of their caucus quick enough.

It wasn't a fear of any "gay germs" that might be spread by Craig--the minority leader is well aware of the fact that Craig was hardly the only closeted Republican on Capitol Hill. It was that Craig was the most expendable man in the Senate. No one noticed he was there. No one will miss him.

McConnell and his lieutenants wanted Craig out fast because he was only doing more harm to the party's seriously soiled reputation and because any Republican who replaces him now will be likely to hold the seat for the embattled Republican caucus in next year's election.

That's what makes McConnell's goodbye to Craig the most hypocritical statement heard during the whole of the Senate GOP's recent bathroom break.

The minority leader knows full well that the only thing that will be remembered about Larry Craig's 33 years in the political arena – as a state legislator, congressman and, since 1990, member of the most exclusive club in America – is that the senator failed to flush when following a cop out of the stall where he had been caught cruising.

Craig was such a senatorial no-account that, even though he arrived in the chamber well before the Republican revolution of 1994 and thus should have been a powerhouse by now, one of his primary claims to "fame" was as a key player in the Congressional Potato Caucus.

If Craig was known for anything, aside from his extracurricular activities, it was for his bizarre lambasting of then-President Bill Clinton for fooling around with a White House intern. The senator told Tim Russert on NBC's Meet The Press that, "The American people already know that Bill Clinton is a bad boy--a naughty boy. I'm going to speak out for the citizens of my state, who in the majority think that Bill Clinton is probably even a nasty, bad, naughty boy."

At least Craig slurping references to naughtiness made him sound flamboyant.

That's more than can be said for the rest of his tenure in Washington, where he arrived with Ronald Reagan in 1981 and voted the party line about as consistently as could be expected for a man whose primary claim on a Senate seat was his party affiliation. Craig liked to play cowboy and pretend to be an independent-thinking westerner. But if a Republican president said "Jump," Craig asked "How high?" And if a Republican Senate leader said "crawl," he asked, "How low?" As a member of successive Congresses, he was for undeclared wars, curtailing civil liberties, tipping the economic scales to favor the wealthy, despoiling the environment and delivering on a regular basis for Wall Street's free-trade agenda as the proud co-chair of the "World Trade Organization Caucus for Farmers and Ranchers." And Craig was against same-sex marriage, extending the federal definition of hate crimes to cover sexual orientation and protecting the employment rights of gays and lesbians.

The senator's interest groups ratings were as predictable as his hypocrisy. He had a 100 percent rating from the Christian Coalition, and a 0 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign. He was the best of the bunch as far as the Business-Industry Political Action Committee was concerned, and pretty close to the worst in the eyes of Public Citizen.

There are those who might suggest that Craig at least served as a consistent conservative. But even that is untrue. When hardcore conservatives broke with the Bush Administration on spending and immigration issues, Craig refused to deviate from the White House line.

Craig was not even in tune enough with his home state to stand with fellow Idaho Republicans like former Congressman Clement Leroy "Butch" Otter--who, as Idaho's governor will appoint the senator's replacement--in defense of privacy rights As Craig's congressional colleague, Otter was a remarkably determined defender of Constitutional rights, who voted with Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, against the Patriot Act in the fall of 2001 and who emerged as one of the sharpest Republican critics of the Bush Administration's warrantless wiretapping schemes and related assaults on basic liberties.

Had Larry Craig sided with Butch Otter in those fights, had he ever once done anything honorable or even interesting, his exit might merit some reflection on "his three decades of dedicated public service." As it is, Craig will be remembered accurately--as an otherwise forgettable hack who cruised out of the Senate without ever contributing a thing to the chamber or the country.

Mitch McConnell got the equation precisely wrong. Nothing about Larry Craig's sojourn in that Minnesota bathroom will ever be so "unforgivable" as the fact that he was offered three decades in which to shape the fate of his nation for the better- or at least for what he thought was better--and came away with nothing to show for it.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Admitting No Wrongdoing, Craig Resigns

UPDATE, September 1: Bowing to intense pressure from fellow Republicans, Idaho Senator Larry Craig resigned today. In a brief public statement in Boise, Craig issued a general apology, but admitted no wrongdoing.

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August 31--One way or another, Larry Craig is a goner. Facing intense pressure from Republican party chiefs and the embarrassment of having audio of his arrest broadcast on national TV, Craig is expected to resign shortly. If he doesn't, the RNC is prepared to call for his head and launch an ethics investigation.

Personally, I'm hoping Craig digs in and forces the issue. I'd love to see Mitt Romney elaborate on what he finds so "disgusting" about "I'm not gay" Craig, or Mitch McConnell explain why admitted john David Vitter is still in the Senate or why crook Ted Stevens hasn't been stripped of his committee assignments. The mutually assured destruction of the party of piety and hypocrisy is the best-case scenario one could hope for here.

Not that it doesn't come with a certain amount of collateral damage. Since Roll Call broke the Craig story, mainstream media--from Slate's Explainer to the Washington Post--have seemingly "discovered" the strange mating rituals of male public sex. A Sacramento CBS news duo even took it upon themselves to reenact the scene, complete with toe-tapping and prop bathroom stall divider. "Sexperts" have been called upon to parse the difference between a tap-tap-tap that signals sexual interest and a tap-tap-tap that indicates a difficult bowel movement. Websites like cruisingforsex.com, which lists places where men meet for the former kind of toe-tapping, have had the most unlikely visitors from Newsweek.

Welcome America! Welcome to the world--not just of underground gay sex--but of law enforcement. The Minneapolis airport police have been slouching here for quite some time. Apparently, since May of this year, they've made 41 arrests like Craig's in an elaborate sting operation. Not to be outdone, the head of the Atlanta International Airport police boasted that they've arrested 45 men (take that Minneapolis!), including "a couple college professors" and "the CEO of a bank" (but alas, no Senators) in a similar sweep. As Doug Ireland reports over at Gay City News, Michigan police have them all beat; the Triangle Foundation reports "a caseload of 770 arrests in four months."

I didn't stress this in my last post on Craig--because I didn't think I'd have to--but such dragnets are not only motivated by homophobia, but are practically, if not technically, police entrapment. They're a legacy of a pre-Lawrence legal order that criminalized sodomy, and they endure to this day because gay sex, even and perhaps especially the suggestion of its solicitation, is still seen as violation of the norms of public life.

Heterosexuals routinely use public space and the internet to solicit sex from each other; sometimes this sex is among perfect strangers or in public (or quasi-public) itself. Unless they involve minors, none of these practices are the subject of undercover busts. Instead they're romanticized (teenage makeout sites), tolerated as nuisances (bad pickup lines, whistles, Lindsay Lohan) or generally treated as vital, sexy aspects of modern social life and economy.

Just once I'd like to see the script flipped. Why don't the Minneapolis police post undercover female cops at airport bars who gesture provocatively towards the bathroom and then arrest any man who follows? Using newfound, post-9/11 surveillance powers, law enforcement should determine the identities of everyone who posts details of their sexcapades on www.milehighclub.com. These are dangerous, lewd heterosexuals who have admitted to having had actual sex--not in the airport--but on the airplane! Baby-faced, 21 Jump Street-type cops should be assigned to every high school to offer blowjobs to jocks underneath the bleachers. Anyone who shows up at the designated coordinates should be arrested. Depending on the jurisdiction, some arrestees may even get their names permanently listed on sex offender registries! The entire city of Myrtle Beach should be staked out for the month of March. And don't even get me started on the subject of Craigslist.

These scenarios may seem outlandish and as long as we live in a straight world, they will never come to pass. But all the tools for their enforcement are already upon us. As Jack Dwyer points out in his excellent anatomy of police surveillance in a post-9/11 New York, the NYPD routinely uses undercover operatives to monitor gatherings as benign as bicycle rides and memorials. These techniques are rightly decried as infringements on the rights of citizens to use the public sphere to express themselves. When that expression is explicitly political, the left reflexively leaps to the fray. But when it comes in the form of someone like Larry Craig, we seem somewhat adrift (see the Slate editors). But nothing Craig did--he solicited, but did not have, sex in public--should be illegal. In fact, absent his hypocrisy, nothing he did should be objectionable either.

Cindy Sheehan, Re-revisited

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post saying Cindy Sheehan would probably not do very well against Nancy Pelosi, and therefore I was sorry she had decided to run. I said she was more valuable to the antiwar movement as an activist. I said leftists waste a lot of time on futile electoral contests, and cited examples of such contests. These remarks, which were couched in terms of deepest respect for Cindy Sheehan, have evoked much bile and wrath in this blog's comment section and elsewhere in the blogosphere. So much fun are commenters having discussing what a traitor and reactionary I am, few seem to have noticed that, in a followup, I wrote that my comments were actually as much about electoral protest politics in general as about this particular race and "if Cindy Sheehan wants to make an anti-war gesture, running against Nancy Pelosi is one way to do it, so good luck to her."

She's going to need it. Her outraged and self-righteous response to my mild and polite posts make me wonder how she will withstand the rigors of political campaigning. Because I express doubt that she will make much impression on the ballot box, and think that likelihood and its implications are worth discussing frankly, Sheehan accuses me of "stridently" (nice --does anyone EVER use that word for a man?) defending the Democratic Party's "complicity" in the war and of not caring about the sufferings of Iraqis the way she does.

I'm sorry, that doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. Even if I was the reprehensible character she claims -- yellowdog Dem indifferent to the horrors of war, willing to say anything to keep Nancy Pelosi in power -- I could still be right about Sheehan's own electoral prospects and about whether such runs are the best use of the antiwar/progressive movements energies. Shouldn't a serious candidate be trying to show the hundreds of thousands of people who visit this website that I am wrong? Sheehan doesn't address any of the points I raise, or that Gary Younge raises in his excellent column on the same issues. All she does is malign my motives and my personality, attack The Nation for supposedly exploiting her fame, and accuse anyone who questions her judgment of supporting the war.

If a lot of people who cheered you last year think you're making a mistake this year, there may be something to it. I'm just saying.

Secret Report: Corruption is "Norm" Within Iraqi Government

As Congress prepares to receive reports on Iraq from General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and readies for a debate on George W. Bush's latest funding request of $50 billion for the Iraq war, the performance of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has become a central and contentious issue. But according to the working draft of a secret document prepared by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the Maliki government has failed in one significant area: corruption. Maliki's government is "not capable of even rudimentary enforcement of anticorruption laws," the report says, and, perhaps worse, the report notes that Maliki's office has impeded investigations of fraud and crime within the government.

The draft--over 70 pages long--was obtained by The Nation, and it reviews the work (or attempted work) of the Commission on Public Integrity (CPI), an independent Iraqi institution, and other anticorruption agencies within the Iraqi government. Labeled "SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED/Not for distribution to personnel outside of the US Embassy in Baghdad," the study details a situation in which there is little, if any, prosecution of government theft and sleaze. Moreover, it concludes that corruption is "the norm in many ministries."

The report depicts the Iraqi government as riddled with corruption and criminals--and beyond the reach of anticorruption investigators. It also maintains that the extensive corruption within the Iraqi government has strategic consequences by decreasing public support for the U.S.-backed government and by providing a source of funding for Iraqi insurgents and militias.

The report, which was drafted by a team of U.S. embassy officials, surveys the various Iraqi ministries. "The Ministry of Interior is seen by Iraqis as untouchable by the anticorruption enforcement infrastructure of Iraq," it says. "Corruption investigations in Ministry of Defense are judged to be ineffectual." The study reports that the Ministry of Trade is "widely recognized as a troubled ministry" and that of 196 corruption complaints involving this ministry merely eight have made it to court, with only one person convicted.

The Ministry of Health, according to the report, "is a sore point; corruption is actually affecting its ability to deliver services and threatens the support of the government." Investigations involving the Ministry of Oil have been manipulated, the study says, and the "CPI and the [Inspector General of the ministry] are completely ill-equipped to handle oil theft cases." There is no accurate accounting of oil production and transportation within the ministry, the report explains, because organized crime groups are stealing oil "for the benefit of militias/insurgents, corrupt public officials and foreign buyers."

The list goes on: "Anticorruption cases concerning the Ministry of Education have been particularly ineffective….[T]he Ministry of Water Resources…is effectively out of the anticorruption fight with little to no apparent effort in trying to combat fraud….[T]he Ministry of Labor & Social Affairs is hostile to the prosecution of corruption cases. Militia support from [Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr] has effectively made corruption in the Ministry of Transportation wholesale according to investigators and immune from prosecution." Several ministries, according to the study, are "so controlled by criminal gangs or militias" that it is impossible for corruption investigators "to operate within [them] absent a tactical [security] force protecting the investigator."

The Ministry of the Interior, which has been a stronghold of Shia militias, stands out in the report. The study's authors say that "groups within MOI function similarly to a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) in the classic sense. MOI is a 'legal enterprise' which has been co-opted by organized criminals who act through the 'legal enterprise' to commit crimes such as kidnapping, extortion, bribery, etc." This is like saying the mob is running the police department. The report notes, "currently 426 investigations are hung up awaiting responses for documents belonging to MOI which routinely are ignored." It cites an episode during which a CPI officer discovered two eyewitnesses to the October 2006 murder of Amer al-Hashima, the brother of the vice president, but the CPI investigator would not identify the eyewitnesses to the Minister of the Interior out of fear he and they would be assassinated. (It seemed that the killers were linked to the Interior Ministry.) The report adds, "CPI investigators assigned to MOI investigations have unanimously expressed their fear of being assassinated should they aggressively pursue their duties at MOI. Thus when the head of MOI intelligence recently personally visited the Commissioner of CPI…to end investigations of [an] MOI contract, there was a clear sense of concern within the agency."

Over at the Defense Ministry, the report notes, there has been a "shocking lack of concern" about the apparent theft of $850 million from the Iraqi military's procurement budget. "In some cases," the report says, "American advisors working for US [Department of Defense] have interceded to remove [Iraqi] suspects from investigations or custody." Of 455 corruption investigations at the Defense Ministry, only 15 have reached the trial stage. A mere four investigators are assigned to investigating corruption in the department. And at the Ministry of Trade, "criminal gangs" divide the spoils, with one handling grain theft, another stealing transportation assets.

Part of the problem, according to the report, is Maliki's office: "The Prime Minister's Office has demonstrated an open hostility" to independent corruption investigations. His government has withheld resources from the CPI, the report says, and "there have been a number of identified cases where government and political pressure has been applied to change the outcome of investigations and prosecutions in favor of members of the Shia Alliance"--which includes Maliki's Dawa party.

The report's authors note that the man Maliki appointed as his anticorruption adviser--Adel Muhsien Abdulla al-Quza'alee--has said that independent agencies, like the CPI, should be under the control of Maliki. According to the report, "Adel has in the presence of American advisors pressed the Commissioner of CPI to withdraw cases referred to court." These cases involved defendants who were members of the Shia Alliance. (Adel has also, according to the report, "steadfastly refused to submit his financial disclosure form.") And Maliki's office, the report says, has tried to "force out the entire leadership of CPI to replace them with political appointees"--which would be tantamount to a death sentence for the CPI officials. They now live in the Green Zone. Were they to lose their CPI jobs, they would have to move out of the protected zone and would be at the mercy of the insurgents, militias, and crime gangs "who are [the] subjects of their investigations."

Maliki has also protected corrupt officials by reinstating a law that prevents the prosecution of a government official without the permission of the minister of the relevant agency. According to a memo drafted in March by the U.S. embassy's anticorruption working group--a memo first disclosed by The Washington Post--between September 2006 and February 2007, ministers used this law to block the prosecutions of 48 corruption cases involving a total of $35 million. Many other cases at this time were in the process of being stalled in the same manner. The stonewalled probes included one case in which Oil Ministry employees rigged bids for $2.5 million in equipment and another in which ministry personnel stole 33 trucks of petroleum.

And in another memo obtained by The Nation--marked "Secret and Confidential"--Maliki's office earlier this year ordered the Commission on Public Integrity not to forward any case to the courts involving the president of Iraq, the prime minister of Iraq, or any current or past ministers without first obtaining Maliki's consent. According to the U.S. embassy report on the anticorruption efforts, the government's hostility to the CPI has gone so far that for a time the CPI link on the official Iraqi government web site directed visitors to a pornographic site.

In assessing the Commission on Public Integrity, the embassy report notes that the CPI lacks sufficient staff and funding to be effective. The watchdog outfit has only 120 investigators to cover 34 ministries and agencies. And these investigators, the report notes, "are closer to clerks processing paperwork rather than investigators solving crimes." The CPI, according to the report, "is currently more of a passive rather than a true investigatory agency. Though legally empowered to conduct investigations, the combined security situation and the violent character of the criminal elements within the ministries make investigation of corruption too hazardous."

CPI staffers have been "accosted by armed gangs within ministry headquarters and denied access to officials and records." They and their families are routinely threatened. Some sleep in their office in the Green Zone. In December 2006, a sniper positioned on top of an Iraqi government building in the Green Zone fired three shots at CPI headquarters. Twelve CPI personnel have been murdered in the line of duty. The CPI, according to the report, "has resorted to arming people hired for janitorial and maintenance duty."

Radhi al-Radhi, a former judge who was tortured and imprisoned during Saddam Hussein's regime and who heads the CPI, has been forced to live in a safe house with one of his chief investigators, according to an associate of Radhi who asked not to be identified. Radhi has worked with Stuart Bowen Jr., the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, who investigates fraud and waste involving U.S. officials and contractors. His targets have included former Defense Minister Hazem Shalaan and former Electricity Minister Aiham Alsammarae. And Radhi himself has become a target of accusations. A year ago, Maliki's office sent a letter to Radhi suggesting that the CPI could not account for hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses and that Radhi might be corrupt. But, according to the US embassy report, a subsequent audit of the CPI was "glowing." In July, the Iraqi parliament considered a motion of no confidence in Radhi-a move widely interpreted as retaliation for his pursuit of corrupt officials. But the legislators put off a vote on the resolution. In late August, Radhi came to the United States. He is considering remaining here, according to an associate.

Corruption, the report says, is "one of the major hurdles the Iraqi government must overcome if it is to survive as a stable and independent entity." Without a vigorous anticorruption effort, the report's authors assert, the current Iraqi government "is likely to loose [sic] the support of its people." And, they write, continuing corruption "will likely fund the violent groups that our troops are likely to face." Yet, according to the report, the U.S. embassy is providing "uncertain" resources for anticorruption programs. "It's a farce," says a U.S. embassy employee. "There is a budget of zero [within the embassy] to fight corruption. No one ever asked for this report to be written. And it was shit-canned. Who the hell would want to release it? It should infuriate the families of the soldiers and those who are fighting in Iraq supposedly to give Maliki's government a chance."

Beating back corruption is not one of the 18 congressionally mandated benchmarks for Iraq and the Maliki government. But this hard-hitting report--you can practically see the authors pulling out their hair--makes a powerful though implicit case that it ought to be. The study is a damning indictment: widespread corruption within the Iraqi government undermines and discredits the U.S. mission in Iraq. And the Bush administration is doing little to stop it.

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OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." 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.

Evolution in Texas -- On the Death Penalty

There are many Americans who do not believe in evolution. And it is probably fair to say that a disproportionate number of them reside in Texas.

But it is from Texas that we gain confirmation of the absolute certainty that human evolution is a reality.

When George Bush was governor of Texas in the 1990s, he approved executions with impunity, sending to death those who might have been innocent and those who might have been guilty, those who had repented and those who had not, those who had adequate representation and those whose lawyers slept through the trials, those who had the mental capacity to understand their crimes, those whose mental state would have barred even a trial in more civilized jurisdictions.

In all, Bush signed more 150 execution orders as governor, a record for the state and nation. The world press recognized him as the "Texecutioner" or, in the slightly less volatile phrasing of London's Independent newspaper: "a death penalty enthusiast."

As president, Bush has continued his energetic advocacy for state-sponsored slaying. Only this month, it was reported that Bush and his soon-to-be-former Attorney General had developed a plan to speed up the executions of Americans lingering on the nation's death rows. The plan, which will be one of the last initiatives of Alberto Gonzales, is to make it easier for executions to be "fast-tracked" by states that want to avoid long appeals processes in the federal courts.

The Bush-Gonzales plan is to borrow a page from recent anti-terrorism legislation -- which strip away habeas corpus protections and other legal guarantees -- in order to allow states to rely on the Justice Department, rather than the federal courts, to decide whether death-row inmates received adequate representation at trial.

That would eliminate one of the primary avenues of appeal from convictions in states such as Texas, which have a history of providing inadequate representation for poor and minority defendants.

Bush and Gonzales, who have worked together since the president's days in Texas to make the killing machines of the states run more smoothly, also want to reduce the amount of time that death-row inmates have to file federal appeals and to pursue them.

So what's this about evolution? Clearly, Bush has not grown as a human being or as a public official with the power to decide who lives and dies.

But Bush is no longer the governor of Texas. Conservative Republican Rick Perry has the job. And on Wednesday, Perry commuted the sentence of Texas death row inmate Kenneth Foster's sentence to life. The decision came just hours before an innocent man was to be killed by the state -- a prospect that would not, in all likelihood, have concerned George Bush or Alberto Gonzales but that did concern Rick Perry.

Foster and his lawyers had long contended that, while he was in a car that was involved in a 1996 armed robbery spree that ended in the murder of a 25-year-old San Antonio man, he killed no one and had no knowledge or intention that a murder should occur. Indeed, Foster was at least eighty feet from where the killing took place.

All of this should have been sorted out at his trial. But Foster's trial was a travesty at which his attorney was not given a chance to cross-examine the defendants partners, who both received life sentences. Even if Foster's trial had been by a legitimate one, however, he might not have escaped the draconian implications of a Texas law that permits the casual execution of any and all participants in crime sprees that turn deadly.

The murderous mess that is Texas jurisprudence was dramatically illustrated by the Foster case. Thanks to the tremendous work of the Save Kenneth Foster Campaign, the world was made aware of the fact that Texas was preparing to perpetrate one of the most wrongful executions in the state's long history of wrongful executions. Even death-penalty proponents began to object.

Last Sunday, the conservative Dallas Morning News editorialized last:

Kenneth Foster was a robber. He was a drug user. He was a teenager making very bad decisions.

He is not an innocent man.

But Mr. Foster is not a killer.

Still, the State of Texas plans to put him to death Thursday.

Joining calls religious and political leaders around the world for a commutation of Foster's sentence, the Morning News ended its editorial by declaring, "Mr. Foster is a criminal. But he should not be put to death for a murder committed by someone else."

"Governor Perry once said that there was no hue and cry against the death penalty in Texas," said Lily Hughes of the national Campaign to End the Death Penalty. "Well, here was your hue and cry."

On the eve of the scheduled execution, Perry announced that, "After carefully considering the facts of this case, along with the recommendations from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, I believe the right and just decision is to commute Foster's sentence from the death penalty to life imprisonment. I am concerned about Texas law that allows capital murder defendants to be tried simultaneously, and it is an issue I think the legislature should examine."

That is not a message that would have been issued by Governor George Bush -- particularly the part proposing legislative intervention to correct an injustice.

This small measure of evolution, occurring in the unlikely state of Texas, has saved the life of a man who should never have been charged with a capital crime.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"