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Newly-selected House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, is getting some remarkably good press, considering his remarkably sordid political pedigree.
ABC News referred to the grizzled veteran of Capitol Hill, who was elected to the House when George Bush the Dad was president and Democrat Tom Foley was the Speaker of the House, as a "fresh face." The network's report on the House Republican Caucus vote to select a replacement for the indicted Tom DeLay was headlined: "New Leader, Ohio Rep. John Boehner, Campaigned as a Reformer."
The Los Angeles Times announced, with no apparent sense of irony, that: "By choosing Boehner to fill DeLay's shoes in the House, the party hopes to move past scandals."
Newsday just went for it, declaring above its report on Boehner's election: "A promise of reform wins vote."
As they say in the newsroom: Don't believe everything you read in the headlines.
Boehner is an old-fashioned shakedown artist whose promise of "change" amounts to little more than a pledge that he won't get caught like DeLay did. The Ohioan may be smoother than the Texan, but only a fool, or a Washington pundit looking to cozy up to the new boss, would mistake a better haircut and the absence of the stench of bug spray as evidence of ethics.
The best take on Boehner's elevation to the top of the Congressional food chain comes not from the Washington press corps but from one of the city's more watchdogs: Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook.
Referring to Boehner victory over the presumed favorite, Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Missoui, in the House leadership contest as "a selection of Tweedle Dum over Tweedle Dee," Claybrook explained that, "The rejection of Representative Blunt shows that rank-and-file Republicans are aware the corruption scandal that has shaken Washington could put their majority status at risk. But the elevation of Representative Boehner, himself a product and proponent of the systemic problem of cronyism and influence-peddling that afflicts our nation's capital, is not a sign that business as usual will end."
Claybrook invites Americans to consider these facts about the man who, because of Speaker Dennis Hastert's obvious limitations, will now be the most powerful player in the House of Representatives:
* Boehner recently characterized Hastert's plan to ban privately funded travel as "childish" and dismissed the need for a ban on gifts from lobbyists to members of Congress. "If some members' vote can be bought for a $20 lunch, they don't need to be here," he said. Later, Boehner backed away from his characterization of the travel ban as "childish," but not the sentiment underlying his remark.
* Boehner's political action committee collected nearly $300,000 from private student lending companies and for-profit academic institutions from 2003-2004. Boehner has used his chairmanship of the Education and the Workforce Committee to promote their pet causes - legislation that would make it more difficult to cut the fees on government student loans, which would cut into the private lenders market share, and legislation that would provide millions in subsidies to for-profit colleges and trade schools. (For more details on this, see a report in the Washington Post of January 28, 2006.)
* Boehner has taken more than $157,000 in free trips, placing him seventh among 638 current and former members of Congress, including senators, in the value of privately funded travel accepted between 2000 and 2005, according to American Radioworks. These included a $4,869 trip to Scotland in 2000 and a $9,050 trip to Rome in 2001, both of which were sponsored by the Ripon Educational Fund, a nonprofit group largely run by business lobbyists. Family members traveled with him for free on both trips.
* An exceptional number - at least 24 - former Boehner staff members have passed through the revolving door from government service to find work in the private sector as lobbyists or corporate public affairs specialists. (For more details on this, see a report in The Hill newspaper of February 1, 2006.)
* Boehner preceded indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay as the head of the "K Street Operation," the Republicans' efforts to coordinate policy and fundraising with well-heeled lobbyists, which since has been dubbed the "K Street Project." But the Ohioan lost the job to DeLay in 1998 after he was voted out as head of the Republican Conference. (For more details on this, see a report in the Baltimore Sun of December 21, 1998.)
* Boehner caught a large amount of flack for handing out checks to his colleagues from tobacco company PACs on the floor of Congress in 1995. Although not illegal, it certainly showed poor judgment but was consistent with his role at the time as the party's chief liaison with K Street. (For more details on this, see a report in the New York Times of May 10, 1996.)
The indictment of Boehner that Claybrook has advanced explains why principled Republicans in both the conservative and moderate camps backed a third candidate for the Majority Leader post, Arizona Representative John Shadegg, who promised to "clean up" the House. Shadegg described his race against Boehner and Blunt as "a choice between real reform and the status quo."
With Boehner's election, the status quo has prevailed. And as Claybrook notes with her usual bluntness -- and accuracy -- that is an ugly result not just for House Republicans but for America.
"Elevating a leader of the current broken system to be majority leader is an affront to voters and a stain on the Republican Party," Claybrook argues. "If the past is any guide, Boehner will now use this key position to undercut ethics and lobbying reforms in the House of Representatives."
President Bush may have tried to claim a little bit of the legacy of Coretta Scott King with a warm and generous reference to her passing at the opening of his State of the Union address this week, but it should be remembered that Mrs. King was a foe of this president and a frequent critic of his abuses of power.
On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mrs. King celebrated the anniversary of birth of her late husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., by recalling that the slain civil rights leader had been outspoken in his opposition to unnecessary and unwise wars.
"We commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. as a great champion of peace who warned us that war was a poor chisel for carving out a peaceful tomorrow. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. Martin said, 'True peace is not just the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice,'" Mrs. King told a crowd that had gathered at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church. She continued, "May his challenge and his example guide and inspire us to seek peaceful alternatives to a war with Iraq and military conflict in the Middle East."
Mrs. King continued to speak out against the Bush administration's policy of preemptive warmaking during the last years of her life, and she always made it clear that she disagreed passionately with this president.
When Bush showed up to lay a wreath at Rev. King's grave in January, 2004, Mrs. King was polite but pointed in her remarks. Before greeting Bush, she told another event at Ebenezer Baptist that she sided with opponents of the war, and she lamented the fact that, "Those people are not in charge of making the policies of their nations."
"If they were," she added, "I think we would have more peace and more justice."
There will be many celebrations of Coretta Scott King's brave and inspiring life, as well as her rich legacy of activism.
But none will be so appropriate as those that recall her absolute opposition to this president's illegal and immoral warmaking.
Minutes before the President of the United States would tell the Congress how much he appreciates "responsible criticism and counsel," the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq was dragged from a gallery overlooking the House chamber where Bush would speak, handcuffed and arrested for the "crime" of wearing a T-shirt that read: "2245 Dead. How many more?"
Cindy Sheehan, who had been invited to attend George Bush's State of the Union address by Representative Lynn Woolsey, the California Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, did not put the "dangerous" shirt on for the event. The woman whose protest last summer outside the President's ranchette in Crawford, Texas, drew international attention to the antiwar movement, had been wearing it at events earlier in the day.
Indeed, as Sheehan, who had passed through Capitol security monitors without incident, noted, "I knew that I couldn't disrupt the address because Lynn had given me the ticket and I didn't want to be disruptive out of respect for her."
No one has suggested that Sheehan was in any way disruptive.
So why was she arrested?
Because, as Sheehan recounts, she was identified as a dissident.
Before the arrest, media reports buzzed about official concern regarding Sheehan's presence. And, as she was being dragged from a room where the President would shortly extol the virtues of freedom and liberty, police explicitly told Sheehan that she was being removed "because you were protesting."
Capitol Police and other security officials, whose rough treatment of Sheehan was witnessed by dozens of people who attended the State of the Union event, said she was arrested for "unlawful conduct." Conveniently, she was held until after the President finished speaking.
Is there really a law against wearing a political T-shirt to the State of the Union address?
The Capitol Police, who on Wednesday dropped the charges against Sheehan, have acknowledged in an official statement that: "While officers acted in a manner consistent with the rules of decorum enforced by the department in the House Gallery for years, neither Mrs. Sheehan's manner of dress or initial conduct warranted law enforcement intervention."
What they have not acknowledged, and what is truly troubling, is the evidence that Sheehan was singled out for rough justice.
Beverly Young, the wife of Representative C.W. Bill Young, a Florida Republican who chairs the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, showed for the State of the Union address up sporting a T-shirt that read, "Support the Troops--Defending Our Freedom." When Capitol Police asked her to leave the gallery because she was wearing clothing that featured a political message, Mrs. Young says, she argued loudly with officers and called one of them "an idiot."
But Mrs. Young was not handcuffed. She was not dragged from the Capitol. She was not arrested. She was not jailed.
Sheehan, who caused no ruckus, was arrested not because she engaged in "unlawful conduct." Rather, by every evidence, she was arrested because of what her T-shirt said--and, by extension, because of what she believes.
That makes this a most serious matter. Representative Pete Stark, the California Democrat who is one of the senior members of the House, is right when he says that Sheehan's arrest by officers he refers to as "the President's Gestapo," tells us a lot more about the George Bush and the sorry state of our basic liberties in the midst of the President's open-ended "war on terror" than anything that was said in the State of the Union address. "It shows he still has a thin skin," Stark says of the President who claims to welcome dissent.
It also shows that the father of the Constitution, James Madison, was right when he warned that, in times of war, the greatest danger to America would not be foreign foes but Presidents and their minions, who would abuse the powers of the executive branch with the purpose of "subduing the force of the people."
This one incident involving one T-shirt is a minor matter. But seen in the context of the mounting evidence of constraints on legitimate protest, warrantless wiretaps and the abuses of the Patriot Act, it reminds us of the the truth of Madison's warning that: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
The truly tragic thing about George W. Bush's fifth State of the Union address was the president's refusal to acknowledge that anyone might remember what was said in his previous speeches to Congress and the nation.
Three years ago, Bush laid out a vision for developing democracy in the Middle East that at least sounded relatively realistic. Echoing statements he had made during the 2000 presidential debate with Al Gore -- when he decried the doomed work of "nation building" -- the president admitted that elections in developing democracies might not turn out the way that his neoconservative "brain trust" had promised they would. And he seemed to be O.K. with that.
"Time after time," Bush warned, "observers have questioned whether this country, or the people, or this group, are 'ready' for democracy -- as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own western standards of progress."
So far, so good.
Unfortunately, it is now clear that the president did not begin to understand, let alone appreciate, the consequences and responsibilities inherent in those words.
Bush, a man whose awareness of the world and its complex politics was scant at the time of his election and who has learned little in the ensuing years, appears to have genuinely believed that if polling stations were set up, Palestinians, Iraqis, Iranians, Egyptians and others would elect the local equivalents of Bill Frist, Denny Hastert, George Allen and Jim Sensenbrenner. Maybe, in his worst nightmares, Bush imagined the prospect that a Palestinian Russ Feingold or an Iranian Howard Dean might prevail. But that would be as scary as his cloistered consciousness allowed things to get.
Then the voting began. And Bush found himself confronted with an Iranian government that seems to be interested in developing a nuclear deterrent to U.S. meddling in its affairs, an Iraqi government that has yet to embrace pluralism, an Egyptian government that maintains its hold on power by denying the most viable opposition party its place on the ballot and a Palestinian government led by a party with a campaign strategy that includes armed struggle.
Speaking last night after a series of elections where voters in fledgling democracies placed their faith in extremist parties that are unenthusiastic about "western standards of progress," Bush had a responsibility to at least attempt to reconcile the new realities created by the results of recent voting. He ranted against "radical Islam" but would not acknowledge its popular appeal. He said Middle East democracies must be allowed to reflect the values and ideals of Middle Easterners, but then proceeded to tell newly elected governments what they must do to meet his -- decidedly western -- standards.
The address raised more questions than it answered.
Does the president still believe that the United States should not act "as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own western standards of progress." If so, should he not take the appropriate, if politically and personally difficult step of accepting the choices of the Iranian and Palestinian peoples? And should he not decry moves in Iraq, Egypt and other countries to control and constrain the democratic experiment in a manner that denies the majority of citizens an opportunity to select the extremist government of their choice?
Or has the president's commitment to democracy been shaken by election results that were not to his liking?
Bush needed to resolve those contradictions last night with an honest discussion of recent developments.
Instead, he delivered an irrational address that maintained an almost childlike certainly in the prospect that, someday soon, voters in Gaza City, Tehran, Baghdad and Cairo will begin casting ballots according to the same "western standards of progress" as voters in Grand Rapids, Toledo, Baltimore and Carson City.
Everyone knows that Bush has trouble admitting his own mistakes. But how can he fail to recognize that his ungrounded idealism of the past -- as evidenced by last year's State of the Union address, in which the president declared that, "The beginnings of reform and democracy in the Palestinian territories are now showing the power of freedom to break old patterns of violence and failure" -- has crashed into the harsh reality of a Hamas win at the Palestinian polls?
Bush introduced the term "faith-based solutions" to American politics. Faith is appropriate at times. But when the unwelcome developments challenge assumptions, faith must be tempered with realism -- and perhaps even a measure of humility. Last night was the point at which Bush needed to get real. Instead, the president asked the American people to embrace his unresolved contradictions and to cling with him to increasingly dangerous delusions.
John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books). Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the time when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com.
Coretta Scott King, the widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who has died at the age of 78, should be remembered for many brave and selfless deeds. Chief among those deeds, to be sure, was her steady opposition to capital punishment. The widow of one of America's most famous murder victims gave voice across four decades to the most credible argument with regard to the death penalty.
"As one whose husband and mother-in-law have died the victims of murder and assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses," she said. "An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by a legalized murder."
State of the Union addresses rarely add anything of value to the national discourse. Rather, they are campaign speeches dressed up as major statements of public policy.
Until the arrival of the current administration, however, State of the Union addresses usually did no harm.
That can no longer be said to be the case. Indeed, during the Bush years, these annual exercises in presidential pontification have actually detracted from the debate -- sometimes devastatingly so.
This president has used his yearly speeches to misstate intelligence data in order to deceive the Congress and the American people about supposed threats to national security, as Bush did in his 2003 address. And he has repeatedly used State of the Union addresses to foster the false impression that misnamed programs -- such as the so-called "Patriot" and "No Child Left Behind" acts -- are actually designed to protect and serve the American people.
Tonight, the president will deliver the second State of the Union address of a second term gone awry. His approval ratings are dismal. The majority of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. And there is a growing movement to censure Bush and Vice President Cheney for abusing their authority, disregarding the laws of the land and undermining Constitutional protections that were designed to preserve basic liberties.
It is the concern about the Bush administration's assaults on freedoms that are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights that ought to weigh heaviest on the president tonight.
Indeed, if there is any one statement that should to be featured in the president's address, it is a response to the demand of U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Middleton, for an explanation of the thinking behind the administration's decision to illegally initiate a program of spying on U.S. citizens -- and to maintain that program even after it was exposed by the media and condemned by many in Congress.
"No Administration official who has publicly defended the NSA program in the last week, including the President, has explained why it is necessary to violate the law and the Constitution to effectively fight terrorism," notes Feingold, the steadiest defender of the Constitution in the current Congress. "Instead, the Administration has resorted to a public relations campaign, perhaps because it knows its legal arguments don't stand up. The American people deserve an explanation of why this Administration decided to violate the law and insists on continuing to do so."
Feingold's right. If the president fails to address the issue of warrantless wiretaps tonight, then he will be guilty of delivering another State of the Union address that hinders rather than encourages the honest dialogue that is essential to democracy.
No one runs for the U.S. Senate on the slogan: "Elect me and I will maintain the status quo."
No one runs for the U.S. Senate promising to go along to get along.
Yet, when push comes to shove, most senators end up as cautious players who choose the easy route of partisanship, ideological predictability and personal political advantage over the more dangerous path of adherence to the Constitution. Americans have grown so accustomed to the compromised nature of the chamber that they often forget that the founders of the American experiment intended the Senate, in particular, to serve as a check and a balance on the excesses of the executive branch.
Unfortunately, major media outlets that now serve as little more than a stenography service for the D.C. consensus regularly reinforce this misinterpretation of senatorial duty by painting members of the body who choose to embrace their Constitutionally-mandated responsibilities as, at best, eccentric or ambitious and, at worst, vindictive or dangerous to the healthy functioning of the body politic.
The move, led by Massachusetts Senators John Kerry and Edward Kennedy, to block the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court with a filibuster is already being dismissed by White House aides, Republican operatives and their echo chamber in the media as a mad misadventure that exposes the Democrats as legislative anarchists bent on wrecking the smooth-functioning processes of the Senate. The Republican National Committee's Tracey Schmitt summed up the sentiment when she peddled the official line of the man who would be monarch, arguing that in George W. Bush's America the Senate's advice and consent responsibilities are no longer required.
"The judicial confirmation process, particularly one for the nation's highest court, should be insulated from such thoughtless bomb throwing..." Schmitt growled.
Samuel Alito has established himself, through his record as an appellate court judge and his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, as the consumate judicial activist. He seeks a place on the Supreme Court in order to advance his vision of an imperial presidency that does not obey the laws of the land or answer to the Congress. Alito is, by his own admission, intellectually and politically at odds with the intents of the founders, and with the Constitutional system of checks and balances that they established. He has gone so far as to advise past presidents on strategies for expanding executive power and, as a judge, he has erred on the side of even the most reckless abuses of executive authority.
As Jonathan Turley, the George Washington University law professor and Constitutional scholar, explained: "In my years as an academic and a litigator, I have rarely seen the equal of Alito's bias in favor of the government. To put it bluntly, when it comes to reviewing government abuse, Samuel Alito is an empty robe."
Turley put the Senate consideration of this nomination in context when he wrote that: "The Alito vote might prove to be the single most important decision on the future of our constitutional system for decades to come. While I generally defer to presidents in their choices for the court, Samuel Alito is the wrong nominee at the wrong time for this country."
Seen in the context of the threat that Alito poses, the use of the filibuster -- an entirely legitimate legislative tool -- to block Alito's nomination is not "bomb throwing." It is an appropriate and necessary embrace of duty by senators who recognize the entirety of their advice-and-consent mandate. Of course there will be political risks for those who back the filibuster. But senators do not swear allegiance to their political security; they swear it to a Constitution that requires them to hold the executive branch to account. In this moment, and in this circumstance, senators can only provide the necessary checks and balances by backing the filibuster.
After the 2004 presidential election in the United States, a lot of liberal Americans looked longingly to the north. Canada, the theory went, was a social democracy with a sane foreign policy and humane values that offered a genuine alternative to the right-wing hegemony that the U.S. was about to experience.
But, this week, U.S. television networks and newspapers declared: "Canadians Tilts Right" and "Conservatives Capture Canada."
As shorthand for the election results that saw Canada's Conservative party outpoll the governing Liberal Party for the first time since Ronald Reagan served in the White House, those headlines may be useful.
But the claim that Canada has lurched far to the right is anything but accurate.
Of course, that has not stopped conservative spin doctors in Washington, and their echo chamber in the U.S. media, from announcing that last Monday's election results from Canada represent a seismic shift to the right for the North American continent. David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush, was peddling the line that Canadians had rejected "anti-Americanism" -- fostering the lie that the Liberals, who had worked closely with the U.S. government on issues ranging from the occupation of Afghanistan, in which Canada is a major player, to free trade, which the Liberals support, was somehow at war with the U.S. Equally disingenuous was Bob Morrison of the Family Research Council, a Washington-based group that opposes reproductive freedom and gay rights, who announced that: "We are glad to see that Canadians have values-voters too. We can be optimistic about the end of the social engineering as driven by the (Liberal) government."
U.S. conservatives, who can point to little in the way of positive political news from around the world these days, are entitled to their fantasies. But no thinking American should buy into them.
As is the case with most right-wing "analysis" coming out of Washington these days, the truth is a lot more complex than the right-wing spin doctors would have Americans believe.
In fact, the Canadian results ought to be read as a warning signal for U.S. Republicans.
* The Canadian election was held early because the Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Paul Martin had been rocked by a major corruption scandal, which involved the misuse of public funds to promote the government's position on issues involving the relationship between the province of Quebec and rest of the country. All of Canada's major opposition parties ran anti-corruption campaigns, and the first promise of the Conservatives was not a rightward shift in public policies, but rather the restoration of honest and accountable government. In the United States, where corruption scandals have shaken the Republican leadership in Congress -- forcing indicted House Minority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to surrender his position of power -- Canada's vote-the-bums-out response to government wrongdoing ought to be heartening to progressives who would like to see a similar response in November to the corrupt practices of this country's governing party. The results from Canada indicate the power of a reform message. According to a poll conducted for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., 54 percent of Canadians who voted Conservative did so because they thought it was time for a change, while only 41 percent said they favored Conservative policies.
* In order to achieve viability in a country that has repeatedly rejected social-conservative policies, Conservative leader Stephen Harper radically restructured the message and the manifesto of his party. He deemphasized issues such as abortion and gay right, and promised to protect and improve popular social-welfare programs, including Canada's national health care system. As Arthur Cockfield, a well-regarded commentator of legal and political issues who teaches law at Queen's University, noted, "Stephen Harper has moved closer to the center of the political spectrum to broaden support for his party. With plans to help working families, promote access to day care, and bolster the public health-care system... Harper no longer proposes any truly radical changes, but has signalled that he plans to tackle a number of policy priorities that could benefit lower- and middle-income Canadians." In the days following the election, Harper moved quickly to assure Canadians that his Cabinet would include leading moderates, and that his policy agenda would reflect the promises he made during the campaign to govern from the middle rather than the right.
* Harper and the Conservatives kept U.S. conservatives at arms length. Harper repeatedly emphasized his independence from the Bush administration, and his differences with the American right, during the course of the campaign. And, according to reports published in a number of Canadian newspapers, Conservative activists asked U.S. conservative leaders not to cheer their campaign on. A headline in the Calgary Sun read: "SSH! U.S. conservatives asked to keep mum." A pre-election email circulated to conservative activists in the U.S. by right-wing firebrand Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation warned that, "Canadian voters have been led to believe that American conservatives are scary and if the Conservative party can be linked with us, they perhaps can diminish a Conservative victory."
* Even with their move to the center, the Conservatives did not win anything akin to a majority of the popular vote. Infact, the Conservatives won only 36 percent support. Almost two-thirds of Canadians cast their ballots for more left-wing alternatives. In democracies with proportional representation voting systems, which better represent the sentiments of the voters, the Conservatives would not be in a position to form a government. Because Canada, like the U.S., maintrains a single-district, "first-past-the-post" voting system, the Conservatives prevailed over a divided opposition. But Canada has a multi-party political system at the federal level; the U.S. does not. If only 36 percent of American voters back conservative Republicans this fall, Democrats will dominate Congress more thoroughly than they have at any time since the Watergate era and perhaps since New Deal Days.
* The Conservatives did not win a governing majority. Of the 308 seats in the Canadian Parliament, the Conservatives will hold only 124. The remainder will be held by Liberals, with 103; the social democratic Bloc Québécois, which is the dominant party in the province of Quebec, with 51; and the social democratic New Democrats (NDP), with 29. An independent from Quebec holds the final seat. Thus, a Conservative government will have to rely on parties of the left to get anything done. A Toronto Star analysis provides the honest assessment that, "This precarious situation raises real questions about which of the Conservative policy priorities... could realistically get through the Commons... That leads to the bigger question too of how long this government could last and when another election could be unleashed on the country."
* Two parties made sighificant gains in Monday's voting: the Conservatives and the New Democrats. While the Conservatives increased the size of their parliamentary delegation by around 25 percent, the New Democrats increased the size of their delegation by more than 33 percent. In fact, for the first time in years, the New Democrats won more seats in the western province of British Columbia than the Liberals, and the NDP made significant inroads in urban centers such as Toronto. Even though they were operating in a political system that tends to drive voters toward the larger parties, the New Democrats dramatically improved their position by running as an explicitly anti-war, anti-corporate free trade and anti-corruption party. NDP leader Jack Layton explained after the election, in which his party achieved its best showing in decades, that: "While Canadians asked Stephen Harper to form a minority government, they also asked the NDP to balance that government."
The bottom line is this: Canadians have chosen to remove a scandal-plagued government that went by the name of "Liberal." But they only did so because the "Conservatives" promised not to be too conservative. And they voted in a team of left-wing watchdogs to assure that those promises are kept. If that gives U.S. conservatives some small measure of comfort, so be it. But U.S. progressives need not be traumatized by these results. Indeed, they can look forward to the day when voters in their country might choose to throw out a scandal-plagued government that goes by the name "conservative."
John Nichols began covering Canadian politics in 1984, and has regularly reported since then on national and provincial elections for U.S. newspapers and magazines. His articles comparing U.S. and Canadian politics have appeared in a number of Canadian publications.
In their new book, Tragedy and Farce John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, two of the country's foremost media analysts and founders of the national media reform group Free Press, dissect the troubling trends in journalism that surfaced in 2004--the decline in resources and standards for political journalism and the organized campaign by the political right to control the news cycle. They show how government decisions made without the informed consent of the American people have led to a media system that undermines democracy. Click here for info on the book, including how to order copies online.
Not to be lost in the reporting on Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee vote to endorse the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to serve on the Supreme Court is the fact that U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, has voted for the first time in his Senate career against a Supreme Court nominee.
More than any other vote by a member of the committee -- which split 10-8 along partisan lines, with all Republicans backing Alito and all Democrats opposing his nomination -- Feingold's vote stands out.
While the seven other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee had all voted against one or more Republican nominees for the high court, Feingold had, until Tuesday, voted to confirm every Supreme Court nominee, Republican or Democrat, to come before the panel.
This break in pattern by the man who is arguably the Senate's most adventurous thinker and independent player ought to serve as a basis for rethinking strategies with regard to blocking the nomination as it now moves to the full Senate -- up to and including the prospect of a filibuster.
Simply put, if Alito is unacceptable to Feingold, then he should be unacceptable to a good many other senators -- including moderate Republicans with whom Feingold has worked closely on campaign finance reform and a host of other issues over the years, such as Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee.
Why give this special status to Feingold? Because, since his arrival in the Senate in 1993, he has distinguished himself by his consistent if often controversial approach to presidential nominations.
The senator from Wisconsin has a record of supporting disputed Republican picks for top posts -- including former Attorney General John Ashcroft and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts -- because of his belief that presidents should be afforded broad leeway when it comes to making appointments. A progressive who is perhaps best known for casting the sole Senate vote against the Patriot Act in 2001, Feingold has long argued that Democrats must support the qualified conservative nominees of Republican presidents if they expect Republicans to support the qualified liberal nominees of Democratic presidents.
Feingold's standard has often infuriated liberal interest groups, along with many of his fellow Democrats, who have argued that he has given too much slack to right-wing Republicans who will never repay the favor. Why, the common question goes, does a progressive Democrat give conservative Republicans a blank check?
But Feingold has always rejected the "blank-check" analogy. The senator has voted against a number of federal appeals court nominees in recent years, and he has consistently made it clear that would oppose a Supreme Court nominee in an instance where a president selected someone who was too extreme, too biased or too ethically challenged.
The fact that Alito is the first high court nominee to fail to meet the Feingold standard is significant. And, as the senator explained to the committee Tuesday, it was not a close call.
In an unusually blunt statement, Feingold went out of his way to distinguish the current nominee from the Republican who he backed just a few months ago to serve as the court's chief justice. "Judge Alito's record and testimony do not give me the same comfort I had with Chief Justice Roberts," said Feingold, who explained that, "Judge Alito's record and his testimony have led me to conclude that his impulse to defer to the executive branch would make him a dangerous addition to the Supreme Court at a time when cases involving executive overreaching in the name of fighting terrorism are likely to be such an important part of the Court's work."
The three-term senator from Wisconsin who is being boomed as a potential progressive candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination pointed out that, on this most vital of issues, Alito's record ought to be troubling to anyone -- no matter what their partisan label -- who respects the system of checks and balances that is outlined in the Constitution and that has served as a bullwark of American liberty over the past 218 years.
"Judge Alito has an impressive background and a very capable legal mind, but I have grave concerns about how he would rule on cases involving the application of the Bill of Rights in a time of war. Some of the most important cases that the Supreme Court will consider in the coming years will involve the government's conduct of the fight against terrorism. It is critical that we have a strong and independent Supreme Court to evaluate these issues and to safeguard the rights and freedoms of Americans in the face of enormous pressures," explained Feingold.
"Confronted with an executive branch that has jealously claimed every possible authority that it can, and then some, the Supreme Court must continue to assert its constitutional role as a critical check on executive power. Just how "critical" that check is has been made clear over the past few weeks, as Americans have learned that the President thinks his executive power permits him to violate explicit criminal statutes by spying on Americans without a court order," Feingold continued. "With the executive and the legislature at loggerheads, we may well need the Supreme Court to have the final word in this matter. In times of constitutional crisis, the Supreme Court can tell the executive it has gone too far, and require it to obey the law. Yet Judge Alito's record and testimony strongly suggest that he would do what he has done for much of his 15 years on the bench: defer to the executive branch in case after case at the expense of individual rights."
While Judge Sam Alito's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee has confirmed that he is not one of their number, a dwindling cadre of public servants still take seriously the dictates of the Constitution and the intents of it authors. And there is no more serious dictate of the document -- and no more solidly established intent -- than the one that requires the Congress to serve as a check and a balance against the excesses of the executive branch. Most particularly in a time of war, the founders intended for the Congress to question, challenge and constrain the president and his aides so that never again would Americans be subjected to the illegitimate, unwarranted and illegal dictates of a King George.
This mandate, so well-established and so thoroughly grounded in history and tradition, places a particularly high demand on the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. It is in the House, the Constitution tells us, that the work of holding an out-of-control president to account, must begin -- and it is on the Judiciary Committee that the process is initiated.
The committee's current chair, Representative James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, should understand this charge better than most. After all, he was at the center of the effort in 1998 and 1999 to impeach former President Bill Clinton.
No matter what one thought of the Clinton impeachment process, it should now be beyond debate that if the misdeeds of the former president required both examination and action by the Judiciary Committee -- as Sensenbrenner so obvioualy believed-- then the misdeeds of the current president must surely merit a similar response.
The memory of the Clinton impeachment has already inspired the most delicious sloganeering, beginning with the t-shirt that declares: "Impeachment: It's Not Just for Oral Sex Anymore." But this is about more than t-shirts and fingerpointing. As the chair of the Judiciary Committee, Sensenbrenner has a Constitutionally-mandated responsibility to take seriously the charges of executive lawbreaking and impropriety that are currently in play. If he cannot execute this responsibility in a reasoned and bipartisan manner, then he has a duty to step aside.
That is a serious choice. But, surely, the issues that are at stake demand such seriousness -- as the American people have clearly indicated. A new Zogby Poll shows that 52 percent of Americas believe that, if George Bush violated the law when he ordered security agencies to engage in warrantless wiretaps on the communications of U.S. citizens who were accused of no crimes, the president should be impeached. So widespread is this faith that almost one quarter of those who identified themselves as "very conservative" expressed support for impeachment as a response to the spying scandal.
So far, however, Sensenbrenner has allowed his partisanship to prevent him from even beginning to execute his Constitutional duties.When Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee demanded that the body conduct an inquiry into illegal spying by the Bush administration, Sensenbrenner refused them.
Because of the consequence of the issues involved, Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the committee, convened an extraordinary session last week without the official sanction that only the committee chairman can convey.
"Last month all 17 House Judiciary Democrats called on Chairman Sensenbrenner to convene hearings to investigate the President's use of the National Security Agency to conduct surveillance involving U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, in apparent contravention of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. As our request has since been ignored, it is our job, as Members of Congress, to review the program and consider whether our criminal laws have been violated and our citizen's constitutional rights trampled upon," explained Conyers, who has played a critical role in investigations of wrongdoing by Democratic and Republican presidents since the days when Lyndon Johnson occupied the White House. "We simply cannot tolerate a situation where the Administration is operating as prosecutor, judge and jury and excluding Congress and the courts from providing any meaningful check or balance to the process."
Members of Congress who attended the hearing -- Conyers and a half dozen other Democrats -- heard George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley refer to the wiretapping ordered by Bush as ''an intelligence operation in search of a legal rationale."Without a doubt, Turley added, ''What the president ordered in this case was a crime," said Turley, who bluntly told the gathering that Sensenbrenner and other House Republicans have set a dangerous precedent by refusing to permit oversight hearings.
Turley's comments on the troubling nature of the president's wiretapping initiative -- and the failure of House Republicans to aggressively investigate and challenge that initiative -- were echoed by Bruce Fein, who served as a deputy Attorney General for the Reagan administration. In addition to suggesting that the implausibility of Bush's claim that he was acting within the law should be self evident, Fein warned presidential powers must always be regulated in order to halt abuses of the moment and to prevent the development over time of an imperial presidency that can no longer be checked by Congress.
The Conyers hearing had an impact on the members who bothered to attend it. Representative Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee's panel on the Constitution, responded to the testimony by announcing that the Judiciary Committee needs to explore whether President Bush should be the subject of an impeachment inquiry for high crimes and misdemeanors stemming from his authorization of illegal spying.
Sensenbrenner might well disagree with that assessment. He has every right to such a sentiment. But he does not have a right to prevent the Judiciary Committee as a whole from entertaining these most fundamental questions about the abuse of presidential power. If Sensenbrenner does not recognize this standard, then he has no place chairing the committee that is charged with taking the lead in the application of Congressional checks and balances -- up to and including impeachment -- as an antidote to executive excess.