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John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

Murtha vs. Hoyer

When the House of Representatives voted Thursday on the question of whether to allow old media companies to colonize and control the internet, the two men who would like to be majority leader in a Democrat-controlled Congress split their votes.

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat who has long been seen as the heir apparent for the majority leader post if Democrats regain power, stuck to his usual pattern: He did as the lobbyists for the largest corporations – and their allies in the Bush administration – asked.

Congressman John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who has indicated that he will challenge Hoyer for the No. 2 position in the party caucus if Democrats retake the House in November, did the opposite.

Hoyer voted for the corrupt "Communications, Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006, which the telephone and cable companies are using as a vehicle to create a two-tier internet in which the sites of corporations and candidates that pay high fees to broadband providers are easily accessed while the sites of small businesses, community groups and independent thinkers will be difficult – perhaps impossible – to reach. Murtha voted against it.

It wasn't the first time that Hoyer and Murtha have split on fundamental questions.

While Murtha has been an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, Hoyer has steered a cautious course far closer to that of the Bush administration.

Last December, Murtha voted against making the PATRIOT Act permanent. Hoyer voted in favor of the move, and in so doing gave the Bush administration everything it was asking for with regard to the controversial law.

The point here is not to suggest that Murtha's a perfect progressive -- in fact, he's really an old-school New Dealer who breaks with liberals on some social issues -- or that Hoyer is Tom DeLay in Democrat drag. For instance, while Murtha's been a more consistent critic of corporate-sponsored free-trade pacts than Hoyer, both men have lifetime records of voting with the AFL-CIO around 90 percent of the time.

But when Hoyer ran against Nancy Pelosi for the position of House Whip back in 2001, there was no question that Pelosi was the progressive choice while Hoyer erred right. Lori Wallach, the director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch and a key player in Washington debates on trade policy, noted that, "Hoyer has repositioned himself--one can only assume for political purposes--as the DLC, business candidate in this race."

No member of the House leadership has more consistently echoed the talking points of the corporate-sponsored Democratic Leadership Council than Hoyer, who once told a DLC event that Democrats lost control of the House in 1994 because "too many Americans believed that our party had become weak on crime and national defense, incapable of making hard decisions on welfare reform and fiscal policy, and irrevocably wedded to the idea that all of our problems could be solved by government and more spending."

Even now, while Hoyer is often praised by the Bush-friendly DLC, Murtha gets savaged. After Murtha called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq last year, the DLC accused the decorated Vietnam veteran of "offering surrender" -- while Hoyer was quoted as saying Murtha's approach "could lead to disaster."

The DLC has good reason to favor Hoyer. The Democratic whip has worked with Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel, D-Illinois, to thwart the candidacies of anti-war Democrats such as Illinosian Christine Cegelis in primaries this year -- just as the two have worked over the years to help corporate-friendly Democrats beat those who challenge the K Street agenda.

The Hoyer-Murtha race is an abstraction at this point. Unless Democrats develop a coherent message soon, there is no guarantee that they will be a majority in search of a leader come November. But if they do become a majority, and if they want that majority to mean anything, Democrats would be wise to consider the opportunity that Murtha offers to distinguish their party on issues such as the war, the Patriot Act and media monopoly.

House Rejects Net Neutrality

The First Amendment of the Internet – the governing principle of net neutrality, which prevents telecommunications corporations from rigging the web so it is easier to visit sites that pay for preferential treatment – took a blow from the House of Representatives Thursday.

Bowing to an intense lobbying campaign that spent tens of millions of dollars – and held out the promise of hefty campaign contributions for those members who did the bidding of interested firms – the House voted 321 to 101 for the disingenuously-named Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act (COPE). That bill, which does not include meaningful network-neutrality protections creates an opening that powerful telephone and cable companies hope to exploit by expanding their reach while doing away with requirements that they maintain a level playing field for access to Internet sites.

"Special interest advocates from telephone and cable companies have flooded the Congress with misinformation delivered by an army of lobbyists to undermine decades-long federal practice of prohibiting network owners from discriminating against competitors to shut out competition. Unless the Senate steps in, (Thursday's) vote marks the beginning of the end of the Internet as an engine of new competition, entrepreneurship and innovation." says Jeannine Kenney, a senior policy analyst for Consumers Union.

In case there was any question that Kenney's assessment was accurate, the House voted 269-152 against an amendment, offered by Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey, which would have codified net neutrality regulations into federal law. The Markey amendment would have prevented broadband providers from rigging their services to create two-tier access to the Internet – with an "information superhighway" for sites that pay fees for preferential treatment and a dirt road for sites that cannot pay the toll.

After explicitly rejecting the Markey amendment's language, which would have barred telephone and cable companies from taking steps "to block, impair, degrade, discriminate against, or interfere with the ability of any person to use a broadband connection to access…services over the Internet," the House quickly took up the COPE legislation.

The bill drew overwhelming support from Republican members of the House, with the GOP caucus voting 215-8 in favor of it. But Democrats also favored the proposal, albeit by a narrower vote of 106 to 92. The House's sole independent member, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, a champion of internet freedom who is seeking his state's open Senate seat this fall, voted against the measure.

Joining Sanders in voting against the legislation were most members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including its co-chairs, California Representatives Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey, as well as genuine conservatives who have joined the fight to defend free speech and open discourse on the internet, including House Judiciary Committee chair James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, and Intelligence Committee chair Pete Hoekstra, R-Michigan.

The left-meets-right voting in the House reflected the coalition that has formed to defend net neutrality, which includes such unlikely political bedfellows as the Christian Coalition of America, MoveOn.org, National Religious Broadcasters, the Service Employees International Union, the American Library Association, the American Association of Retired People, the American Civil Liberties Union and all of the nation's major consumer groups.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, opposed COPE, while House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, and Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, were enthusiastically supported it.

Among the Democrats who followed the lead of Hastert and Boehner – as opposed to that of Pelosi – were House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer and Maryland Representative Ben Cardin, who is running for that state's open Senate seat in a September Democratic-primary contest with former NAACP President Kweisi Mfume. Illinois Democrat Melissa Bean, who frequently splits with her party on issues of interest to corporate donors, voted with the Republican leadership, as did corporate-friendly "New Democrats" such as Alabama's Artur Davis, Washington's Adam Smith and Wisconsin's Ron Kind – all co-chairs of the Democratic Leadership Council-tied House New Democrat Coalition.

The fight over net neutrality now moves to the Senate, where Maine Republican Olympia Snowe and North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan have introduced legislation to codify the net neutrality principles of equal and unfettered access to Internet content into federal law.Mark Cooper, the director of research for the Consumers Federation of America, thinks net neutrality will find more friends in the Senate, at least in part because the "Save the Internet" coalition that has grown to include more than 700 groups, 5,000 bloggers and 800,000 individuals is rapidly expanding.

"This coalition will continue to grow, millions of Americans will add their voices, and Congress will not escape the roar of public opinion until Congress passes enforceable net neutrality," says Cooper.

Cooper's correct to be more hopeful about the Senate than the House. But the House vote points up the need to get Democrats united on this issue. There's little question that a united Democratic caucus could combine with principled Republicans in the Senate to defend net neutrality. But if so-called "New Democrats" in the Senate side with the telephone and cable lobbies, the information superhighway will become a toll road.

La Lucha Continua: Solidarity Across Time

Solidarity, if it is to mean much, must exist not merely in a white-hot moment. It must extend across the arc of history, at least until damage wrought in a particularly dark time is undone.

Certainly, it matters when Americans express their momentary concern for victims of particularly egregious U.S. policies in foreign lands, as millions of U.S. citizens did when the Reagan administration was funding Contra armies, death squads and dictatorships across Central America. But when the focus of policymakers in Washington shifts from one troubled location to the next, it is often the case that the attention of American activists moves with them to the next "hot spot."

One group that has refused to ignore the wreckage left behind by the Reagan administration's misdeeds of the 1980s, and the corporate misdeeds that have followed in their wake, is the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network. The group provides a model of solidarity across the decades. Its 25 chapters in the United States have continued to work with the Salvadoran communities with which they partnered 20 years or more ago, promoting sustainable development, opposing free trade agreements and raising the alarm when corporations take advantage of those agreements to exploit workers and the environment in a country that has suffered far too much exploitation.

An example of how the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network's solidarity model works will be seen Friday at the annual shareholders meeting of Au Martinique Silver Inc., a Canadian-registered mining exploration firm that is promoting development of a gold mine in the Salvadoran department roughly equivalent to a state of Chalatenango. The mining scheme has stirred broad opposition in Chalatenango, where farmers fear that waste from the mining operation will pollute local rivers and water supplies with arsenic and cyanide.

Fifteen mayors in the department and the overwhelming majority of parish priests in the heavily Catholic region have expressed opposition to the project, arguing that it would devastate local agriculture and fisheries. So strong is the opposition that, last year, 300 residents of remote communities in the region formed a human chain to block Au Martinique teams from entering their towns.

Unfortunately, there is little media coverage of development disputes in rural El Salvador. So Au Martinique continues to tell its shareholders and potential investors in the mining project that the company is working "hand-in-hand with the local communities to assure a partnership in economic development and good environmental stewardship." At the same time, the company is signaling that even if the locals don't want to walk "hand-in-hand" with the multinational corporation, the project will advance because, in the words of an Au Martinique prospectus, "the Republic of El Salvador has one of the lowest risk profiles for investment in all of Latin America" a reference to the fact that El Salvador's conservative government is more willing than most to do the bidding of foreign corporations.

In Chalatenango, sentiment toward Au Martinique's exploration project has been anything but welcoming.

"The people in the communities aren't in favor of the mining project," explains Esperanza Ortega, a nominee for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize who lives in the community of Arcatao in Chalatenango. Ortega argues that it is exceptionally "important to talk to the investors, talk to the people funding this project and tell them if they come into this zone they are going to have a lot of problems. ..." But, of course, it is not easy for residents of a mountainous region that is far even from the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador to get that message across to the investors and funders.

That's where the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities solidarity commitment comes in. Some of the group's strongest partnerships are located in Chalatenango. For instance, the based Madison-Arcatao Sister City Project has formalized the relationship between Madison, Wisconsin, and the municipality of Arcatao in Chalatenango to such an extent that mayors, city council members and legislators regularly travel back and forth between the communities. Working with the University of Wisconsin and local hospitals in Madison, activists here have helped their partners in Arcatao develop clinics and a host of local services. They have also successfully lobbied their members of Congress to oppose trade agreements that would harm workers and the environment in El Salvador and other Latin American countries.

"Our relationship with Arcatao was rooted in mutual opposition to U.S. military policies in the '80s, but we have recognized for a long time that exploitation of the region by corporations that do not respect the needs of the people can be just as devastating," says Marc Rosenthal, a Madison nurse and union activist who has regularly visited the region over the past two decades. "The people in Chalatenango have real fears about what this mining project will do to the region, and everything I've seen tells me that those fears are well grounded. So we're going to make sure that they are heard."

When Denver-based Au Martinique convenes its shareholders meeting on Friday, organizers and activists with the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network will be there. "Since the company has not informed its shareholders about the local opposition, we have decided to bring the Chalatenango anti-mining campaign directly to the directors and shareholders of this company," said Dennis Chinoy, a U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network activist from Bangor, Maine. "Investors need to be aware that this is a very risky project and that we will continue our campaign until the company has respected the wishes of the local communities and withdrawn its investment."

For those who recognize "solidarity" as something more than a slogan, the determination of the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network to make sure that the voices of protest from El Salvador continue to be heard in the corridors of corporate and political power provides an inspiring reminder that there are activists who still understand both the meaning and the duty of the phrase la lucha continua.

To learn more about the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities Network, visit http://jeffbogdan.net/usessc/index.php

No Majority for Discrimination

President Bush threw what was left of his influence on Capitol Hill behind the move by social conservatives to amend the Constitution to discriminate against gays and lesbians. But when the votes were counted Wednesday, the president was not even able to muster a majority in the Senate.

When the critical test came on the election-year proposal to amend the Constitution to essentially ban same-sex marriage -- along with a number of other basic protections for gay and lesbian families -- only 49 senators voted to move the amendment forward.

That was far short of the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture, close off debate and force a vote on the actual amendment. And it was a full 18 votes short of the 67 needed for the Senate to approve a Constitutional amendment.

On a more politically pragmatic level, Wedesday's tally put the ban one short of a majority in a Senate that is supposedly on the side of the president who has gone out of his way to make same-sex marriage an issue. So significant was the failure that White House press secretary Tony Snow felt compelled to report that Bush was not "despondent" over the result.

Perhaps he should be, as Bush's inability to keep even his own partisans in line on an issue he has chosen to make something of a focal point of his second-term agenda was striking.

Seven Republicans -- Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, John McCain of Arizona, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and John Sununu of New Hampshire -- voted with 41 Democrats to block cloture. [Two of the Republicans who opposed cloture, Gregg and Specter, had previously been amendment supporters but switched to the opposition Wednesday.] Only two Democrats who happen to be up for reelection this year in socially-conservative states, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voted with 47 Republicans to end debate.

Notably, the three senators who did not vote Wednesday -- Democrats Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, and Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska -- have all expressed opposition to amending the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Hagel has been particularly blunt, telling a Nebraska newspaper in 2005, "I'm a conservative. I believe the sanctity of the Constitution of the United States is very important, I don't think you need a constitutional amendment defining marriage. That's a state issue."

The amendment, which Senator Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, correctly identified as "an instrument of bigotry and prejudice" will continue to rattle around the Capitol -- look for a meaningless House vote on the issue next month -- as Republicans try to use it as a tool to energize the party's increasingly listless base. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, explained during the cloture debate, "This is not about the preservation of marriage. This is about the preservation of a [Republican] majority. I think, sadly, most people realize there's political motivation here."

Wednesday's vote cannot provide much inspiration for the GOP, however. With so many of its own senators voting to block the amendment's progress -- including incumbents such as Chafee and Snowe who are up for election this year -- the Republicans are going to have a hard time suggesting that expanding their party's majority in the Senate will move the country any closer to a federal ban on same-sex marriages, civil unions and other protections for gay and lesbian families.

Indeed, there has been a good deal of grumbling within the Republican Senate caucus -- as evidenced by the seven dissenting votes that were cast Wednesday -- about the wisdom of trying to gin up a debate on social issues when the attention of the American public seems to be so firmly fixed on the war in Iraq and concerns about the strength of the economy and health care costs.

That won't stop social conservatives from pushing their discrimination amendments. They'll win in some states, as they did Tuesday in Alabama, where voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment Tuesday to ban same-sex marriage. But a similar amendment is on the ballot in Wisconsin this fall, and polls and pattersn suggest that it could be the first such state-based proposal to lose. More significantly, the high-profile, high-spending amendment fight in Wisconsin is expected to stir interest in the fall election on the part of young people and other traditionally low-turnout populations that Democratic strategists think will be drawn to the polls to oppose the amendment but stay around to vote for Democrats.

There's no question that playing the discrimination card has helped Republicans by drawing socially-conservative voters to the polls in recent years. But the low-road approach seems to be wearing thin, even for Republicans. McCain, who some had predicted would vote for cloture and the marriage ban in order to improve his prospects among the social-conservative voters who will be key players in the 2008 Republican presidential nomination process, cast a firm "no" vote and then took a swing at the core argument for the amendment, telling the Senate, "Most Americans are not yet convinced that their elected representatives or the judiciary are likely to expand decisively the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples."

That is true. It is also true that support for discrimination against gays and lesbians is waning in America, especially among younger voters. Time and experience are moving citizens toward what the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, referred to as "the better angels of our nature" -- and away from the notion that sowing devisions and encouraging discrimination will somehow make either families or the Republic stronger.

Citizens 1, Corporations 0

In states across the country Tuesday, primary elections named candidates for Congress, governorships and other important offices. But the most interesting, and perhaps significant, election did not involve an individual. Rather, it was about an idea.

In Northern California's Humboldt County, voters decided by a 55-45 margin that corporations do not have the same rights -- based on the supposed "personhood" of the combines -- as citizens when it comes to participating in local political campaigns.

Until Tuesday in Humboldt County, corporations were able to claim citizenship rights, as they do elsewhere in the United States. In the context of electoral politics, corporations that were not headquartered in the county took advantage of the same rules that allowed individuals who are not residents to make campaign contributions in order to influence local campaigns.

But, with the passage of Measure T, an initiative referendum that was placed on the ballot by Humboldt County residents, voters have signaled that they want out-of-town corporations barred from meddling in local elections.

Measure T was backed by the county's Green and Democratic parties, as well as labor unions and many elected officials in a region where politics are so progressive that the Greens -- whose 2004 presidential candidate, David Cobb, is a resident of the county and a active promotor of the challenges to corporate power mounted by Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County and the national Liberty Tree Foundation -- are a major force in local politics.

The "Yes on T" campaign was rooted in regard for the American experiment, from its slogan "Vote Yes for Local Control of Our Democracy," to the references to Tuesday's election as a modern-day "Boston Tea Party," to the quote from Thomas Jefferson that was highlighted in election materials: "I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

Just as Jefferson and his contemporaries were angered by dominance of the affairs of the American colonies by King George III and the British business combines that exploited the natural and human resources of what would become the United States -- and wary of the machinations of those who would establish an American economic royalism -- so Humboldt County residents were angered by the attempts of outside corporate interests to dominate local politics.

Wal-Mart spent $250,000 on a 1999 attempt to change the city of Eureka's zoning laws in order to clear the way for one of the retail giant's big-box stores. Five years later, MAXXAM Inc., a forest products company, got upset with the efforts of local District Attorney Paul Gallegos to enforce regulations on its operations in the county and spent $300,000 on a faked-up campaign to recall him from office. The same year saw outside corporations that were interested in exploiting the county's abundant natural resources meddling in its local election campaigns.

That was the last straw for a lot of Humboldt County residents. They organized to put Measure T on the ballot, declaring, "Our Founding Fathers never intended corporations to have this kind of power."

"Every person has the right to sign petition recalls and to contribute money to political campaigns. Measure T will not affect these individual rights," explained Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, a resident of Eureka who was one of the leaders of the Yes on T campaign. "But individuals hold these political rights by virtue of their status as humans in a democracy and, simply put, a corporation is not a person."

Despite the logic of that assessment, the electoral battle in Humboldt County was a heated one, and Measure T's passage will not end it. Now, the corporate campaign will move to the courts. So this is only a start. But what a monumental start it is!

Sopoci-Belknap was absolutely right when she portrayed Tuesday's vote as nothing less than the beginning of "the process of reclaiming our county" from the "tyranny" of concentrated economic and political power.

Surely Tom Paine would have agreed. It was Paine who suggested to the revolutionaries of 1776, as they dared challenge the most powerful empire on the planet, that: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation similar to the present hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of the new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months."

It is time to renew the American experiment, to rebuild its battered institutions on the solid foundation of empowered citizens and regulated corporations. Let us hope that the spirit of '76 prevailed Tuesday in Humboldt County will spread until that day when American democracy is guided by the will of the people rather than the campaign contribution checks of the corporations that are the rampaging "empires" of our age.

Gore Vidal Campaigns for "A Real Democrat"

Gore Vidal, the grandson of a senator who stood himself for the House and Senate and then played a senator in Tim Robbins' brilliant film "Bob Roberts," has been campaigning this spring -- almost as hard as if he was once again on the ballot.

The author, resident in Los Angeles, has thrown himself into the campaign of Marcy Winograd, the teacher and progressive activist who is mounting a spirited challenge to Bush-friendly Democratic Representative Jane Harman for an L.A.-area House seat in today's California Democratic primary.

Harman, who voted to authorize President Bush to order the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and who has supported the administration repeatedly in divisions on issues ranging from the Patriot Act to warrantless wiretapping and domestric surveillance, is trying to sell herself as a generally solid Democrat who should be forgiven her lapses.

Vidal, displaying the knowing skepticism that is his greatest contribution to the American political discourse, is unwilling to accept the incumbent's election-season spin.

"The all important issues are the war and civil liberties," says the social critic who has appeared at a number of Winograd fund-raising events and rallies, including an election-eve gathering in Venice. "I'm not even interested in Harman's other issues. She has been wrong on the war, and the war is such a fundamental issue."

In fact, Harman's been wrong on a host of other issues. For instance, she's been such a disappointing player on trade policy and related economic concerns that the United Auto Workers [Western Region] has joined several other unions -- including the United Farm Workers of America, United Teachers of Los Angeles and the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers -- in taking the rare step of endorsing a challenge to a Democratic incumbent in a primary election. But Vidal's right that the distinction on the war is fundamental; as Winograd says: "I will vote to end the war in Iraq and to bring our troops home. Harman will not."

Vidal is not merely anti-Harman, however. He is pro-Winograd. Noting the challenger's clear vision with regard to foreign policy, her consistent critique of the domestic eavesdropping programs so favored by the current administration, and her pledge to hold Bush accountable -- using all the means available to a member of Congress, up to and including the option of impeachment -- the author labels her "a real Democrat" and suggests that she is the sort of candidate who might inspire the party's broad if frequently disenchanted base.

"Marcy Winograd's election would teach a lesson all around," Vidal told me the other day. "The Democratic Party is theoretically a minority but in reality is always the majority in the country. When Democrats vote, and when their votes are actually counted, which is of course an issue of some concern with these Diebold [voting] machines, they prevail. But we have been in a rough period where that has not been the case. Now, we are told that this is about to change, that this will be a good year for Democrats. Perhaps. But it does no good that a Jane Harman will benefit from a Democratic year -- which it looks like this is going to be -- when we can dump her and get a real Democrat to take her place."

Dixie Chicks are No. 1

Cultural conservatives, who have been busy of late trying to claim that the rebellious songs of The Who are other rock groups are really right-wing anthems, have misread America's tastes in a major way when it comes to the Dixie Chicks.

Conservative politicians, pundits and political writers -- from Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston to Media Research Council president L. Brent Bozell and bloggers by the dozen -- couldn't wait to trash Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison for releasing a new album that refused to make nice with President Bush and the thought police who screech "shut up and sing" every time a musician expresses an opinion.

The Dixie Chicks have for the past three years taken more hits than any other musicians because, ten days before Bush ordered the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Maines told a cheering crowd at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire theater: "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas."

For the "crime" of prematurely voicing a sentiment that is now close to universal in the US--with more than two-thirds of Americans expressing disapproval of Bush--the Dixie Chicks were hit with a full-frontal assault by right-wing media. Talk radio and television labeled them the Ditzy Chicks and their popular songs suddenly were yanked from country-music playlists. Boycotts were announced.

The word "traitor" was tossed around as if Maines and her mates had been conspiring with Osama bin Laden -- as opposed to expressing appropriate concern about a president who was about to take actions that would significantly increase the appeal of al-Qaeda internationally. Bush even weighed in, declaring that, "I ... don't really care what the Dixie Chicks said." That was mild compared with the nightly blisterings from Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly.

It was clear that a neoconservative blood oath had been sworn against the most successful female group not just in the history of country music, but of all musical genres--having sold more than 30 million albums and CDs prior at the time the assault began.

Conservatives may not keep all their promises, but they kept this one. With the approach of the late May release date for Taking The Long Way, the group's first album since Maines spoke up in London, the trashing began. At an Academy of Country Music awards ceremony in March, singer Reba McEntire read a scripted line about how she could host the event because, "[If] the Dixie Chicks can sing with their foot in their mouth, then I can do anything!" Rush Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest of the right-wing ranters picked up the chorus and, by the time of the CDs finally hit the stores the official line was that the Chicks were finished as major stars. Country fans would abandon them. Country radio would not play unapologetic tracks such as the single "Not Ready to Make Nice." Congressman Kingston --who, it should be said, maintains the most entertaining offical blog of anyone in Washington--used his "Jack's Blog" to muse that Maines and her compatriots made a big mistake when they started talking politics.

Er, maybe not...

Taking the Long Way has shot to Number 1 on Billboard's country music chart and the overall Billboard 200 chart. In its first full week of availability, the latest release from the Dixie Chicks sold 526, 000 units. That's a way better entry into the charts than the latest release from Toby Keith, the country star who has been lionized by conservatives for his bombastic songs and his rhetoric cheapshots at the Chicks. Keith's White Trash With Money mustered sales of 330,000 in its first week.

Indeed, Taking the Long Way had the second-best first-week sales of any album on the country charts this year.

In the autobiographical single that references the controversy, "Not Ready to Make Nice," Maines in unapologetic. "I'm not ready to make nice," she sings. "I'm not ready to back down."

The Dixie Chicks answer the cultural conservatives on "Not Ready to Make Nice," when Maines sings that she: "Can't bring myself to do what it is you think I should." America is echoing that sentiment, rejecting the right's "shut-up-and-sing" assault with a warm embrace of an album that has them singing and speaking up.

Impeach Alberto Gonzales? Why, yes!

California Congressman Darrell Issa is one of the most conservative Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee. So it should come as no surprise that he offered an appropriately cautious and responsible solution for the Constitutional conflict created when members of the Bush administration ordered federal agents to raid the Capitol Hill office of a sitting member of Congress.

"We have the power to impeach the attorney general," Issa told Tuesday's Judiciary Committee hearing titled: "Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?"

Much of the Washington press corps, which maintains a familiarity with the Constitution that is roughly equivalent to its acquaintance with the truth, dismissed Issa's suggestion that the committee might want to consider the ultimate political sanction for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The Washington Post's lamentable Dana Milbank, who stands ever ready to ridicule any defense of the Constitution, huffed that the California congressman was being "dramatic."

Dramatic? Let's hope so, because the times are dramatic, and the concerns that have been raised by the raid on Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson's office demand a response that is equal to them.

There is no question that Gonzales, a champion of executive overreach since his days as White House counsel, used the Constitution as a doormat when he ushered FBI agents into Jefferson's office. The investigation of Jefferson, a Tom DeLay-sleazy member of the House who conveniently for the ever-political Gonzales happens to be a Democrat, had already yielded more than enough evidence of wrongdoing. The raid was, as George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley described it: a "gratuitous insult" motivated not by necessity but by "raw arrogance."

The raid was, as well, what former Reagan Justice Department aide Bruce Fein said it to be during the Judiciary Committee hearing: "Unconstitutional."

The whole concept of a separation of powers between equal branches of government demands that Congress respond aggressively and appropriately to the raid – not in defense of William Jefferson, but in defense of the principle that the executive branch does not have the authority to send its foot soldiers into the offices of the legislative branch.

If the precedent of the raid on Jefferson's office stands, this administration – which has already signaled its intention to track down and prosecute whistleblowers and others who might dissent from its imperial impulses – will not stop in the office of one ethically-challenged congressman from Louisiana. And future administrations will retain, rather than return, the powers that have been seized.

When he denounced the raid at the hearing, Texas Republican Louie Gohmert said, with rather more flourish than has come to be expected from a member of this Congress: "I'm not defending any Jefferson except for Thomas Jefferson."

The fact is that Thomas Jefferson would have approved Issa's resort to talk of impeachment, the Constitutional remedy that the founders intended to be used to maintain the integrity of the federal government, especially at times when the executive branch began to mirror the regal excesses of the monarchy they had so recently been discarded.

To be sure, it was a bit absurd for Issa and other Republicans to be calling the administration to account on this particular abuse when there are so many others worthy of impeachment. As Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen reminded the committee on Tuesday, it is possible to point to a "number of examples of overreaching by the executive branch where there's been a total lack of oversight by this Congress: the torture memorandum, detainees, enemy combatants, signing statements, domestic surveillance, data-mining operations."

Fein, the former Reagan Justice Department official, echoed Van Hollen, suggesting to the committee that the raid on Jefferson's office was merely "an additional instrument of the Bush administration to cow Congress" – in keeping with what he described as the administration's regularly expressed "claim of inherent presidential authority to flout any statute that [the chief executive] thinks impedes his ability to gather foreign intelligence, whether opening mail, conducting electronic surveillance, breaking and entering, or committing torture."

Add to that bill of particulars clear evidence that the president, the vice president and administration aides employed deceit and chicanery to organize the invasion and occupation of two foreign countries without a Declaration of War – or a plan – and the outline for articles of impeachment begins to take shape.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves here. Most members of Congress are only beginning to recognize their oversight responsibilities – and the awesome powers that go with them.

As Gohmert of Texas told the committee: "I've been so much more concerned about the judiciary overreaching in power, and I really had not looked at the executive." Only since it was recently revealed that the president has ordered a massive program to monitor and review the phone calls made by Americans on American soil – what the congressman referred to as the "phone logs and things" – has he "become more concerned."

Yes, of course, that's an embarrassing admission for a member of the Judiciary Committee to make. But at least Gohmert and other Republicans are expressing concern. And, at long last, a Republican member of Congress has dared to suggest that a member of a lawless Republican administration might rightly be the subject of impeachment.

That is a small measure of progress. But it is progress that the founders would have celebrated and encouraged. Indeed, as George Mason reminded the Constitutional Convention 219 years ago this summer: "No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued."

The New Cheerleader

The favorite spin of the Bush administration and its amen corner in the media in recent weeks has been the line that: Aside from quagmire in Iraq, things are going great -- especially with the economy.

Apart from the fact that Iraq is a mighty big "aside," the whole pitch about how "the economy is going gangbusters" is a ridiculous simplification of circumstances that are far more complicated and far less positive than the White House would have Americans believe.

As part of the administration's campaign to convince the American people that don't know how good they have it, the president announced last week that, "America's economy is on the fast track."

That was an echo of recent comments from the man they call "Bush's Brain," Karl Rove, who has emerged as spin-doctor-in-chief for the administration's "It's the economy, stupid!" argument. ``The president's tax cuts, trade liberalization and spending restraint helped strengthen the economy's foundation and added fuel to our economic recovery,'' Rove declared in a recent speech. ``Not a bad record!''

Actually, the record is pretty bad. That's why Treasury Secretary John Snow is exiting.

The fine hands of Rove and new White House chief of staff Josh Bolten -- who shares the White House political czar's faith in the "big-lie" brand of politics -- are exceptionally evident in the administration's latest attempt to spin its way out of the approval-rating ditch in which the president has been sinking in recent months.

The abrupt conclusion of the long political death watch for Snow is a merely the lastest of many desperation moves for an administration that is longer on wishful thinking that actual accomplishments.

Snow, who campaigned harder and more visibly for the president's reelection than any other Cabinet member, has been on the way out almost since Bush's second term began. Why? The American people have not for some time been of the impression that the president and his aides are doing enough to "strength the economy's foundations." A Gallup Poll of 1,002 Americans, conducted May 8-11, found that that they were growing ever more ill-at-ease with the state of the economy. Seventy percent of those surveyed said the economy was in poor or only fair condition; that was up from 63 percent a month earlier.

Administration insiders are now trying to sell the line that the president's pick to replace Snow, Goldman Sachs Group CEO Henry Paulson, will be a better cheerleader. With Paulson, a Bush campaign fund-raising "pioneer," selling the White House's economic "success story," the line goes, the president's fortunes are sure to rise.

It's a bad bet.

Americans understand that Cabinet members don't quit when things are going great; and, certainly, treasury secretaries are not elbowed out of their positions when the economy is going gangbusters.

The fact is that Paulson's an able man, as was Snow, as was Snow's predecessor, Paul O'Neill. But it is absurd to think that this wizard of Wall Street will be able to relieve fears that the economy is headed in an unsettling direction.

Those fears are grounded in the reality that even those sectors of the economy that experienced the growth spurt so loudly trumpeted by Bush and Rove are now showing signs of a slowdown.

And much of the economy never really got going in the first place.

The "success story" the administration has been trying so hard to sell was always uneven -- benefiting some regions and industries far more than others. For instance, workers in the auto manufacturing and auto parts sectors are not enjoying their rides on the "fast track" as some of the biggest names of those industries spiral downward into bankruptcy or painful cycles of plant closings and "restructuring."

For Americans who are paying attention -- and the polls suggest that a lot of them are -- there is the even more troubling reality that the United States has in recent years been living far beyond her means.

The U.S. trade deficit is at a record level, as this country imports far more than it exports month after month. Federal deficits and debts are skyrocketing. Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates regularly warns that the widening U.S. budget and trade deficits are undermining the dollar, saying in one recent interview, ``It is a bit scary. We're in uncharted territory when the world's reserve currency has so much outstanding debt.'' Investment guru Warren Buffett has been warning for the past several years that "unless we have a major change in trade policies," the U.S. economy is going to take a hit.But, of course, Bush is not betting on a change in trade policies. Nor is he embracing fiscal responsibility when it comes to federal budgeting.

All he is doing is hiring a new cheerleader. And cheerleading is not going to relieve the anxiety of Americans who are paying $3 a gallon for gas, facing the end of a period of artrificially-low interest rates and relatively easy money, trying to keep track of plant-closing notices, fretting about whether their pensions will survive the next corporate restructuring, and coming to recognize that record-high trade deficits and mounting federal debts are nothing to celebrate.

A Time to Mourn

The wisdom of wars can be debated on any day, and this column has not hesitated to question the thinking -- or, to be more precise, the lack of thinking -- that has led the United States to the current quagmire in Iraq.

But on Memorial Day, it is well to pause from the debate to remember those whose lives have been lost, not merely to the fool's mission of the contemporary moment but to all those battles – noble and ignoble – that have claimed the sons and daughters of this and every land.

After the bloodiest and most divisive of America's wars, the poet Walt Whitman offered a dirge for two soldiers of the opposing armies -- Civil War veterans, buried side by side. His poem is an apt reminder that, when the fighting is done, those who warred against one another often find themselves in the same place. It is appropriate that we should garland each grave, understanding on this day above all others that wars are conceived by presidents and prime ministers, not soldiers.

It is appropriate, as well, and perhaps a bit soothing, to recall Whitman's wise words:

The last sunbeam

Lightly falls from the finish'd Sabbath,

On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking,

Down a new-made double grave.

.

Lo, the moon ascending,

Up from the east the silvery round moon,

Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon,

Immense and silent moon.

.

I see a sad procession,

And I hear the sound of coming full-key'd bugles,

All the channels of the city streets they are flooding,

As with voices and with tears.

.

I hear the great drums pounding,

And the small drums steady whirring

And every blow of the great convulsive drums,

Strikes me through and through.

.

For the son is brought with the father,

(In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell,

Two veterans son and father dropt together,

And the double grave awaits them.)

.

And nearer blow the bugles,

And the drums strike more convulsive,

And the daylight o'er the pavement quite has faded,

And the strong dead-march enwraps me.

.

In the eastern sky up-buoying,

The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumin'd,

('Tis some mother's large transparent face,

In heaven brighter growing.)

.

O strong dead-march you please me!

O moon immense with your silvery face you soothe me!

O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!

What I have I also give you.

.

The moon gives you light,

And the bugles and the drums give you music,

And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,

My heart gives you love.

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