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There is one good thing that comes with "conservative" Republican hegemony: Proof positive that the Grand Old Party is no longer even feigns interest in fiscal responsibility.
Complete Republican control of the White House and Congress has unleashed a pork-barrel spending spree of unprecedented proportions. Deficit spending in on the rise. The national debt is soaring. And the greying pachyderms of the GOP just keeps dipping into the federal treasury to pay for more pet projects.
With the federal government on track to spend $371 billion more than it takes in this year, these "fiscal conservatives" are on a spree that the rest of us will be paying off for decades to come.
And they show no sign of slowing down.
The latest example of how powerful Republicans are porking up the budget comes from Mississippi's Republican delegation, and even by the standards of this Congress it's a pork-barrel pig out.
Mississippi Senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, both self-proclaimed "conservatives," are busy securing Congressional approval for a $700 million scheme to relocate a Gulf Coast railroad line. Lott, the Dixiecrat-hailing former Senate Majority Leader who hopes to return to the chamber's leadership after Tennessee's Bill Frist steps down in January, is the prime mover of the budget pen on this one -- and the prancing Prince of Pork really has outdone himself.
The railroad line in question was just repaired at a cost of $250 million but, after that money was spent, Lott and Cochran suddenly figured our that the tracks needed to go elsewhere – so they added their $700 million "earmark" to a $106.5 billion emergency defense spending bill in the Senate.
Earmarks, for those who don't speak Washingtonese, are the legislative tricks that powerful members of Congress use to secure funding for homestate projects without going through standard budget reviews. They are usually attached to major spending bills, in hopes that a few hundred million in additional expense will not be noticed amid the hundreds of billions that are being allocated.
The earmark that Lott and Cochran have come up with is the largest in the history of the Congress. And it may well be the sleaziest.
The railroad line that's slated for removal is in great shape. And no one seriously suggests that moving it a slight distance will make it significantly more secure if a hurricane hits the region – as they regularly do. So why is the federal treasury being raided to pay for the relocation?
The CSX freight line is in the way of a grand plan by wealthy, politically-connected developers in Mississippi to erect new casinos and hotels along the beaches that were just devastated by Hurricane Katrina. They want to move a perfectly good railroad line to open up land so that they can, in the words of the Christian Science Monitor , "turn Mississippi's struggling Gulf Coast into Las Vegas South."
That's right. Lott and Cochran, who when they aren't bragging about their "fiscal conservatism" are busy preaching about the need to restore "moral values" to America, are grabbing $700 million from federal taxpayers to clear the way for a new Sin City.
Some will cry "hypocrisy." A better description is "business as usual" in Republican-run Washington.
When Democrats in my home state of Wisconsin voted at their state party convention last spring to call for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, they added the name of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to the list.
That still sounds like an appropriate roster for removal.
While there is much attention this week to the call from an ever widening circle of former military commanders in the failed Iraq War and other recent U.S. misadventures -- including a half dozen retired generals -- who have called for Rumsfeld's firing, how much sense does make to get rid of the Secretary of Defense when his actions have been so clearly a reflection of goals and strategies developed by the president and vice president?
No doubt, Rumsfeld has mishandled the Iraq invasion and occupation.
But would another Secretary of Defense chosen by Bush and Cheney do any better?
Doesn't the current crisis have more to do with the administration's misguided project of regime change and nation building than with the approach that Rumsfeld has taken to it?
If the problem is with the project, then shouldn't the focus be on the serious task of removing Bush and Cheney, rather than the cosmetic change of names of the office of the Secretary of Defense?
While there is no question that Rumsfeld should go, there ought to be some question about whether extracting one rotten apple from the barrel will cure what ails this administration.
It is true that the forced removal of Rumsfeld could further weaken a president whose popularity is already in steep decline. But it could also create the false impression of a course correction even as Bush and Cheney -- and Secretary of Defense Joe Lieberman -- steer the U.S. further into quagmire.
The Nazarene whose resurrection is celebrated Sunday preached a gospel of justice and peace. His sincere followers recognize him as a man of action, who chased the money changers from the temple. But they recall, as well, that he rejected the violence of emperors and their militaries and he abhorred harm done to innocents.
Some years ago, in an effort to promote moral values, Christians of a particular persuasion began wearing wristbands imprinted with "WWJD?" -- the acronym for the question, "What Would Jesus Do?"
After George W. Bush -- who once identified the prophet as his favorite philosopher -- initiated a preemptive attack on Iraq, killing tens of thousands of civilians, critics of the president and his war offered a variation on wristband slogan. They printed bumper stickers that asked: "Who Would Jesus Bomb?"
The absurdity of the notion that the Nazarene would sympathize in any way with the violent invasion and occupation of Iraq was not lost on one of the greatest Christian spokesmen of our time, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin. The longtime chaplain of Yale University and pastor of New York City's Riverside Church, who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the early days of the civil rights movement and came to national prominence as one of the most outspoken moral critics of the war in Vietnam, died last week at the age of 81.
Active to the end, Coffin explained in one of his last interviews that, "There are two major biblical imperatives: pursue justice and seek peace." Honoring those imperatives, he campaigned consistently and loudly – even as his own health failed -- for the quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
As a World War II veteran and a passionate patriot who described his arguments with U.S. foreign policies as "a lovers' quarrel," Coffin counseled his fellow citizens that, "What we shouldn't do is to believe President Bush when he says that to honor those who have died, more Americans must die. That's using examples of his failures to promote still greater failures."
The preacher who argued that, "War is a coward's escape from the problems of peace," believed that many of his fellow pastors were too tepid in their condemnation of the Bush administration and its Iraq imbroglio, explaining last fall that, "Local clergy must brave the accusation of meddling in politics, a charge first made no doubt by the Pharaoh against Moses. When war has a bloodstained face none of us have the right to avert our gaze. And it's not the sincerity of the Administration, but its passionate conviction of the war's rightness that needs to be questioned. Self-righteousness is the bane of human relations, of them all -- personal and international. And the search for peace is Biblically mandated. If religious people don't search hard, and only say 'Peace is desirable,' then secular authorities are free to decide 'War is necessary.'"
Coffin complained in the early years of the Bush interregnum that the United States was in a spiritual recession. But before his passing, Coffin witnessed encouraging signs that the recession was coming to a close.
Almost three dozen mainstream Christian denominations signed a February letter that signaled a more aggressive antiwar stance, in which U.S. religious leaders admitted that, "We have failed to raise a prophetic voice loud enough and persistent enough to deter our leaders from this path of preemptive war." That acknowledgement marks the opening of a more aggressive campaign on the party of the churches to raise a prophetic voice that, echoing William Sloane Coffin Jr. and the Nazarene he followed, calls for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. This is the truth that Coffin counseled must be spoken; just as the Pharaoh of ancient times had to be challenges, so must the pharaoh of our contemporary passage.
In the tradition of the late Paul Tsongas, the former Massachusetts senator who in 1991 launched a decidedly uphill run for the Democratic presidential nomination and succeeded in making his concerns about deficit spending central to the national discourse, another former U.S. senator will launch a presidential campaign Monday that seeks to highlight big ideas -- in this case about the Constitution and direct democracy.
Mike Gravel, who represented Alaska as a maverick Democratic Senate from 1969 to 1981, will announce his candidacy for the Democratic nomination with a press conference at the National Press Club.
Gravel came to national prominence in 1971, during the struggle over the Pentagon Papers, the secret official study that detailed how missteps and manipulations by successive U.S. administrations and their agents had created the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, provoked a national uproar when he put the report in the hands of the New York Times, which published portions of it in June of that year. The Justice Department moved to block further publication of information from the Pentagon Papers and to punish newspaper publishers who revealed the contents. At that point, Gravel, a war critic, stepped in. The senator tried to read the contents of the study into the Senate record and to release them to the public, arguing that he had the authority to do so as a senator communicating with his constituents. He then sought to publish the papers in book form as The Senator Gravel Edition, The Pentagon Papers [Beacon Press]. When Justice Department went after the senator and his publisher, Gravel fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court. While lower courts expressed sympathy for the Gravel's stance, the high court rejected his claim that as a senator he had a right and a responsibility to share official documents with his constituents. Fortunately for Gravel, publicity surrounding the case was so damning to the administration's position that it finally backed off.
The Pentagon Papers battle was a classic Mike Gravel fight. A scrappy former speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives, the senator had little patience with the secrecy and compromises of official Washington. An unrelenting critic of nuclear weapons testing on the Alaskan island of Amchitka, he came to the Capitol prepared to take on presidents and fellow senators, and he did so repeatedly. Gravel clashed not just with the Nixon administration but with fellow Democrats who counseled a more cautious approach to a president who, before Watergate, was perceived as being both popular and powerful. It was Gravel who in 1971, against the advice of Democratic leaders in the Senate, launched a one-man filibuster to end the peactime military draft, forcing the administration to cut a deal that allowed the draft to expire in 1973.
In 1972, Gravel sought the Democratic nomination for vice president, winning the votes of 226 delegates at the Miami convention that nominated George McGovern for president. He would be reelected to the Senate with ease in the "Watergate election" of 1974, only to be defeated in the Reagan landslide of 1980.
In recent years, Gravel has been an outspoken advocate for democratic reforms, particularly a Constitutional amendment that would allow for national referendums on major public policy issues. He is, as well, a proponent of radical tax reform initiatives, such as the replacement of corporate and individual income taxes with a 23 percent national sales tax on goods and services.
Gravel plans to talk about those reforms in his campaign for the Democratic nod, but he will also highlight his passionate opposition to the Iraq War, which he frequently compares to Vietnam, and to the secrecy and dishonesty of the Bush administration, which he suggests is worse in many senses than what he saw during the Nixon years.
After the indictment last fall of Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff, I. "Scooter" Libby, as part of the ongoing investigation of moves by the Bush-Cheney administration to punish former Ambassador Joe Wilson for revealing that the president's arguments for going to war with Iraq were unfounded, Gravel said. "This is much more serious [than many of the fights over Nixon's wrongdoing]. What we are talking about here is actually a conspiracy of elements of the Bush administration to hoodwink, or lie, to the American people, so that they could go to war in Iraq. Of course that whole process took advantage of the Congress, and the American people, and the American media."
Though his record is impressive, and his ideas are worthy of discussion, Gravel probably faces an even greater challenge as a 2008 presidential contender than did Tsongas in 1992. Tsongas had been out of the Senate for less than a decade and was still a relatively young man when he waded into a much more fluid contest for the Democratic nomination against former President George Herbert Walker Bush. Gravel left the Capitol more than a quarter century ago and is now 75. He also faces the prospect that at least one current senator who shares many of his concerns about the war and official secrecy, Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, will be in the running. Feingold, who travels to Iowa later this month, has a much higher profile -- especially since he proposed censuring the president -- and is raising money and hiring staff at an aggressive clip.
But Gravel is experience, articulate and, above all, gutsy. And if he gets into a few of the higher-profile debates with Feingold and a group of other Democrats that could include New York Senator Hillary Clinton, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards and others, the former senator from Alaska will hold his own. At the very least Mike Gravel begins with the promise, like that offered by Paul Tsongas back in the early 1990s, that with him in the running the Democratic debates are likely to be broader and better than they would be without him.
What will the U.S. do about Iran? Sanction? Bomb? Invade?
How about... nothing.
That's right, nothing.
So suggests a Republican member of the U.S. House who has been sounding the alarm in Congress about the rush to act against what he dismisses as nothing more than "the next neocon target."
"There is no evidence of a threat to us by Iran, and no reason to plan and initiate a confrontation with her," argues Representative Ron Paul, the conservative from Texas who has in recent weeks voiced the loudest and most consistent objections to attempts by the Bush administration and its allies in Congress to suggest that U.S. military action may be needed to avert a supposed nuclear threat from the country.
An "Old Right" Republican with a long libertarian streak who has been repeatedly reelected from a Texas district where American flags wave in the breezes blowing off the Gulf of Mexico, and where the word "patriot" is taken seriously by the congressman and his constituents, Paul offers the answer to the despairing question of whether there is anyone in Congress who recognizes that the course proposed by the Bush administration and its neoconservative gurus is one of sheer madness.
Instead of planning an attack, the Texas Republican argues, "There are many reasons not to do so."
In a detailed address delivered on the floor of the House last week, Paul detailed them:
Iran does not have a nuclear weapon and there's no evidence that she is working on one -- only conjecture.
If Iran had a nuclear weapon, why would this be different from Pakistan, India, and North Korea having one? Why does Iran have less right to a defensive weapon than these other countries?
If Iran had a nuclear weapon, the odds of her initiating an attack against anybody-- which would guarantee her own annihilation-- are zero. And the same goes for the possibility she would place weapons in the hands of a non-state terrorist group.
Pakistan has spread nuclear technology throughout the world, and in particular to the North Koreans. They flaunt international restrictions on nuclear weapons. But we reward them just as we reward India.
We needlessly and foolishly threaten Iran even though they have no nuclear weapons. But listen to what a leading Israeli historian, Martin Van Creveld, had to say about this: "Obviously, we don't want Iran to have a nuclear weapon, and I don't know if they're developing them, but if they're not developing them, they're crazy."
There's been a lot of misinformation regarding Iran's nuclear program. This distortion of the truth has been used to pump up emotions in Congress to pass resolutions condemning her and promoting UN sanctions.
IAEA Director General Mohamed El Baradi has never reported any evidence of 'undeclared' sources or special nuclear material in Iran, or any diversion of nuclear material.
We demand that Iran prove it is not in violation of nuclear agreements, which is asking them impossibly to prove a negative. El Baradi states Iran is in compliance with the nuclear NPT required IAEA safeguard agreement.
We forget that the weapons we feared Saddam Hussein had were supplied to him by the U.S., and we refused to believe UN inspectors and the CIA that he no longer had them.
Likewise, Iran received her first nuclear reactor from us. Now we're hysterically wondering if someday she might decide to build a bomb in self interest.
Anti-Iran voices, beating the drums of confrontation, distort the agreement made in Paris and the desire of Iran to restart the enrichment process. Their suspension of the enrichment process was voluntary, and not a legal obligation. Iran has an absolute right under the NPT (nuclear proliferation treaty) to develop and use nuclear power for peaceful purposes, and this is now said to be an egregious violation of the NPT. It's the U.S. and her allies that are distorting and violating the NPT. Likewise our provision of nuclear materials to India is a clear violation of the NPT.
Noting that the same neoconservatives who steered the United States into the quagmire that is Iraq now want to start a new preemptive war with Iran -- not because a fight in needed but in order to achieve the regime change they desire -- Paul says what ought to be the official line of all rational observers of the situation: "Hysterical fear of Iran is way out of proportion to reality."
The Texas Republican, who opposed the rush to war with Iraq in 2002 and remains a steadfast critic of the endeavor, also proposes the rational counter to neoconservative calls for a new war.
With a policy of containment, we stood down and won the Cold War against the Soviets and their 30,000 nuclear weapons and missiles. If you're looking for a real kook with a bomb to worry about, North Korea would be high on the list. Yet we negotiate with Kim Jong Il. Pakistan has nukes and was a close ally of the Taliban up until 9/11. Pakistan was never inspected by the IAEA as to their military capability. Yet we not only talk to her, we provide economic assistance-- though someday Musharraf may well be overthrown and a pro-al Qaeda government put in place. We have been nearly obsessed with talking about regime change in Iran, while ignoring Pakistan and North Korea. It makes no sense and it's a very costly and dangerous policy.
The conclusion we should derive from this is simple: It's in our best interest to pursue a foreign policy of non-intervention. A strict interpretation of the Constitution mandates it. The moral imperative of not imposing our will on others, no matter how well intentioned, is a powerful argument for minding our own business. The principle of self-determination should be respected. Strict non-intervention removes the incentives for foreign powers and corporate interests to influence our policies overseas. We can't afford the cost that intervention requires, whether through higher taxes or inflation. If the moral arguments against intervention don't suffice for some, the practical arguments should.
Intervention just doesn't work. It backfires and ultimately hurts American citizens both at home and abroad. Spreading ourselves too thin around the world actually diminishes our national security through a weakened military. As the superpower of the world, a constant interventionist policy is perceived as arrogant, and greatly undermines our ability to use diplomacy in a positive manner.
Conservatives, libertarians, constitutionalists, and many of today's liberals have all at one time or another endorsed a less interventionist foreign policy. There's no reason a coalition of these groups might not once again present the case for a pro-American, non-militant, non-interventionist foreign policy dealing with all nations. A policy of trade and peace, and a willingness to use diplomacy, is far superior to the foreign policy that has evolved over the past 60 years.
It's time for a change.
Indeed, it is.
Where to begin? How about with the Democrats in Congress?
Isn't it time for the so-called "opposition party" to start talking as much sense about Iran as a member of the president's own party?
"We have won, and now we have to start working to implement our program and unify the country," Romano Prodi told Italians after the official count confirmed from that country's national elections confirmed exit polls showing Prodi's center-left coalition had deposed the government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had allied Italy with George W. Bush's foreign policies.
With his Olive Tree coalition of moderate Christian Democrats, liberals, Greens, Socialists, former Communists and Communists on track to gain solid control of the lower of the two houses of the Italian Parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, and a narrow majority in the upper house, the Senate, Prodi says he is positioned to begin to implement an ambitious agenda. If all goes as planned, one of the new prime minister's first moves will be to pull Italy's contingent of 2,600 troops out of Iraq.
That will deprive the Bush administration's "coalition of the willing" occupation force in Iraq of its fourth largest contingent.
The Italian withdrawal will be the latest blow to the administration spin that suggests the occupation is a multinational initiative. A score of countries have withdrawn their troops or are in the process of doing so. Many of the exits were hastened by elections that -- as in Italy this week -- saw voters chose political leaders and parties that promised to quit the coalition.
With Italy out, only three countries -- the U.S., Great Britain and South Korea -- will have more than 1,000 troops on the ground in Iraq.
The Italian exit is expected to come quickly.
Prodi's coalition promised during the campaign to implement an immediate withdrawal and, in nationally-televised debate last week he spelled out how it will work. "When we go to the government we'll decide for a speedy pullout of the troops, in secure conditions, talking with the Iraqi authorities," said Prodi, who explained that his priority would be to implement the exit strategy "as soon as possible."
Prodi could have a hard time implementing much of his program, as the close divide in the Senate and his own unwieldy coalition are likely to make governing difficult. But the process of getting Italian troops home will be eased by the fact that many member of Berlusconi's coalition also favor withdrawal. Indeed, in an attempt to diffuse the war issue during the recent campaign, Berlusconi, himself, had suggested that he would try to get Italian troops out of Iraq by the end of the year.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, President Bush and his supporters spent a great deal of time talking about a "coalition of the willing" that at one time included four dozen countries. The president's use of the term "coalition" was always something of a misnomer, as it suggested a great deal of shared responsibility, when in fact the overwhelming majority of troops on the ground were from the U.S. Aside from the U.S. and Great Britain, no country ever had more than 5,000 troops in Iraq, and many of the coalition "partners" never had more than 100 troops in the country. Additionally, some of the largest troops contingents came from countries in eastern and central Europe that had been coerced to join the coalition by the U.S., which promised support for their efforts to integrate into international economic and political organizations in return for the commitment of troops to Iraq.
The president makes few references to his "coalition of the willing" these days because the coalition has been crumbling. Among the countries that have exited the coalition are Singapore (in January 2004), Nicaragua (February 2004); Spain (April 2004); Dominican Republic (May 2004); Honduras (May 2004); Norway (June 2004), Philippines (July 2004); Thailand (August 2004); New Zealand (September 2004); Tonga (December 2004) Hungary (December 2004); Portugal (February 2005); Moldova (February 2005); Netherlands (June 2005), Ukraine (December 2005) and Bulgaria (January 2006).Compared with the U.S. casualty rate, the Italians have suffered relatively few losses in Iraq.
But those losses have been deeply felt, as they have been in other coalition countries. Twenty-seven Italian soldiers died in Iraq, according to a CNN count. That's out of a coalition death toll, as of April 10 of 2,560 -- 2,353 of them Americans, one Australian, 103 Britons, 13 Bulgarians, three Danes, two Dutch, two Estonians, one Fijian, one Hungarian, one Kazakh, one Latvian, 17 Poles, two Salvadoran, three Slovaks, 11 Spaniards, two Thai and 18 Ukrainians.
Prodi has always said that the Italian death toll was 27 too many.
Prodi, a former prime minister, reentered Italian politics two years ago -- after serving as president of the European Commission -- when he backed a campaign against Italian participation in the coalition that used the slogan: "Iraq: A Wrongful War." Now, as the prime minister once more, Prodi will be able to implement the promise of that campaign by withdrawing Italian troops from the coalition and by further confirming that the ongoing occupation of Iraq is George W. Bush's project -- as opposed to that of a genuine "coalition of the willing."
In light of the news that President Bush authorized a top Administration aide to use previously classified information as part of an orchestrated political attack on a prominent critic of the Administration, a radio host asked me over the weekend: "What will it take to get Republicans to break with Bush? How bad will things have to get before they realize that he's a disaster for the country?"
I answered that, in small but significant ways, Republicans have been breaking with Bush for some time now. When the President travels to states around the country to pump up support for his war, he often does so without the accompaniment of GOP members of Congress who find that they are otherwise engaged on the days that the Commander in Chief drops by their hometowns. While most leading Republicans refuse to admit as much publicly, they are putting more and more distance between themselves and a President whose approval rating has dropped to Nixon-in-Watergate depths.
When Congress voted recently on whether to extend the Patriot Act, some of the loudest "no" votes came from conservative Republicans such as Don Young of Alaska and Butch Otter of Idaho, who argued with Democratic US Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin that the legislation was an assault on basic liberties and Constitutional standards. As but a handful of Senate Democrats and key House Democrats such as Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel were lining up with the Bush Administration to curtail civil liberties, Texas Republican Ron Paul, perhaps the most consistent critic of the Patriot Act in the House, complained that "one prominent Democrat opined on national television that 'most of the 170-page Patriot Act is fine,' but that it needs some fine tuning. He then stated that he opposed the ten-year reauthorization bill on the grounds that Americans should not have their constitutional rights put on hold for a decade. His party's proposal, however, was to reauthorize the Patriot Act for only four years, as though a shorter moratorium on constitutional rights would be acceptable! So much for the opposition party and its claim to stand for civil liberties."
Perhaps even more significant than GOP opposition to the Patriot Act is the opposition from some of the most conservative Republicans in the House--including Paul, Walter Jones and Howard Coble of North Carolina, and John Duncan of Tennessee--to the war in Iraq. These Republicans, among others, are now among the most ardent and articulate Congressional critics of the Administration's policies in the Middle East.
Last week, Paul, Jones and a moderate Republican, Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, joined with three Democrats--Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, Ike Skelton of Missouri and Marty Meehan of Massachusetts-–in a push to get the House to hold a daylong debate on the war, declaring that: "Americans deserve an open and honest debate about the future of US policy in Iraq by their Representatives in Congress." While the debate demand of these Republicans stalwarts was stymied by their party leadership in the House, it is notable that House Republican leaders chose not to block a March 16 amendment by US Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, which put the House on record as opposing the construction of permanent US bases in Iraq. The decision not to fight Lee's amendment, which passed by an overwhelming voice vote, was a tacit acknowledgment by GOP leaders of the reality, pointed up in a recent University of Maryland Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll, that 60 percent of Republican voters oppose a permanent US presence in that country.
Indeed, while a predictable 80 percent of Democrats support moves to begin withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, according to the PIPA poll, a rather more remarkable 52 percent of Republicans now want Washington to begin bringing the troops home.
Although their President and Vice President and a few key Congressional leaders may still be clinging to neoconservative fantasies, Republicans who actually care about their country-–as well as Republicans who care about the political viability of their party at a time when a new Associated Press/Ipsos poll finds that Americans would prefer a Democrat-led House by the widest margin in recent history, 49 percent to 33 percent-–are indeed beginning to make meaningful breaks with Bush.
So the question of the moment is not "What will it take to get Republicans to break with Bush?" The question is: "What will it take to get Congressional Democrats to break with Bush?"
Despite mounting evidence not just of the President's unpopularity but of his reckless disregard for the law-–which was again confirmed by last week's news of former Cheney chief of staff I. "Scooter" Libby's testimony that Bush authorized distribution of previously classified data as part of a concerted effort to undermine the credibility of former Ambassador Joe Wilson, who had revealed that the "case" for going to war in Iraq was based on false premises-–most Congressional Democrats continue to resist calls to hold the President accountable.
An American Research Group poll conducted in March found that 70 percent of Democrats, 42 percent of independents and 29 percent of Republicans surveyed favor censuring Bush for authorizing wiretaps of Americans within the United States without obtaining court orders. Yet Feingold's motion to censure Bush has drawn just two Democratic co-sponsors in the Senate, Barbara Boxer of California and Tom Harkin of Iowa.
The same American Research Group poll found that 61 percent of Democrats, 47 percent of independents and 18 percent of Republicans are supportive of moves to impeach Bush. Yet Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has attracted just 33 co-sponsors for his resolution calling for the creation of "a select committee to investigate the administration's intent to go to war before Congressional authorization, manipulation of pre-war intelligence, encouraging and countenancing torture, retaliating against critics, and to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment." Most Democratic members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, along with Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders, have signed on. But House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and others in leadership positions remain aggressively critical of the initiative.
Where, at the very least, is the united Democratic support for Representative Maurice Hinchey's call for the expansion of Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into White House leaks-–which produced the indictment of Libby and last week's revelation about the role of the President and Vice President-–to examine the motivations of all of those involved in the White House's political assault on Joe Wilson? Hinchey, a New York Democrat, has been on the case since last summer, when he got thirty-nine other House members to sign a letter he wrote to Fitzgerald calling for the expanded investigation. As Hinchey says, "Justice will not be served until all of these matters are fully addressed in the courts and in the Congress."
Hinchey's right. But the fundamental truth of American politics remains that justice will only be served when the opposition party moves, as a united force encouraged and supported by its leadership in the House and Senate, to demand accountability from this Administration. For most Democrats, that will demand something they have not yet been willing to make: a break from Bush. And Democrats had better be quick about making that break, unless they want their Republicans colleagues to beat them to the punch.
President Bush told Vice President Cheney to tell the vice president's chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, to disclose highly classified information regarding Iraq intelligence in order to try and discredit legitimate criticism of the administration.
What's this? The latest line from proponents of impeachment?
No, according to court records that became available Thursday, it is what Libby testified was the scenario that played out before he began contacting reporters in an effort to undermine the reputation of former Ambassador Joe Wilson.
According to a National Journal report on the documents: "I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby testified to a federal grand jury that he had received 'approval from the President through the Vice President' to divulge portions of a National Intelligence Estimate regarding Saddam Hussein's purported efforts to develop nuclear weapons, according to the court papers. Libby was said to have testified that such presidential authorization to disclose classified information was 'unique in his recollection,' the court papers further said."
The Journal report, which is based on both the court papers and interviews with senior government officials familiar with the investigation of Libby's actions by Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the specialprosecutor in the CIA leak case, suggests that a fast-and-loose approach to the release of classified information was authorized by Bush and Cheney before the war as part of an effort to "make the case" for the invasion of Iraq.
After the invasion, when Wilson raised questions about the validity of claims made by the president, the Journal report suggests that the gloves came off, and the weapon of choice was classified information.
"Bush and Cheney authorized the release of the information regarding the NIE (National Intelligence Estimate) in the summer of 2003, according to court documents, as part of a damage-control effort undertaken only days after former ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV alleged in an op-ed in The New York Times that claims by Bush thatSaddam Hussein had attempted to procure uranium from the African nation of Niger were most likely a hoax."
The White House initial response Thursday was to refuse to comment on Libby's testimony, which has called into serious question the president's October, 2003, assertion that: "I don't know of anyone in my administration who has leaked. If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it, and we'll take the appropriate action."
But if the president is not now in a position to take appropriate action, members of Congress are.
U.S. Representative Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, who has been the most determined Congressional watchdog with regard to the administration's misuse of intelligence information, says that, "If what Scooter Libby said to the grand jury is true, then this latest development clearly reveals yet again that the CIA leak case goes much deeper than the disclosure of a CIA agent's identity to the press. The heart and motive of this case is about the deliberate attempt at the highest levels of this administration to discredit those who were publicly revealing that the White House lied about its uranium claims leading up to the war. The Bush Administration knew that Iraq had not sought uranium from Africa for a nuclear weapon, yet they went around telling the Congress, the country, and the world just the opposite. When Ambassador Joseph Wilson, Valerie Wilson's husband, publicly spoke out with proof that the administration was not telling the truth on uranium, the administration engaged in an orchestrated plot, which now reportedly includes President Bush, to discredit Ambassador Wilson and dismiss any notion that they had lied about pre-war intelligence."
Hinchey, one of the rare members of the House who has made it his business to monitor and police abuses of executive powers, wrote the 1999 amendment to intelligence reauthorization legislation that forced the declassification of documents that revealed the role played by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and other members of the Nixon administration in the illegal 1973 overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende.
The congressman is one of 33 cosponsors of Representative John Conyers' resolution calling for the creation of a select committee to investigate, among other issues, the Bush administration's manipulation of pre-war and retaliating against critics. That committee would be charged with making recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment, which would, of course, require a finding that high crimes and misdemeanors had been committed by the president and vice president.
Hinchey's says that Libby's testimony adds to the mounting body of evidence that rules, regulations and laws have been bent far beyond the breaking point.
"It is an absolute disgrace to the institution of the presidency that President Bush authorized members of his administration to disclose select parts of highly classified information from a National Intelligence Estimate in order to make political advances and gain public support," says Hinchey. "How dare President Bush and Vice President Cheney say they want to prosecute those who leaked the NSA domestic surveillance program when they themselves authorized the disclosure of information from some of the most highly sensitive documents in the government. The White House opposes leaks when the disclosed information hurts them politically, but supports leaks when information advances their political cause."
Hinchey has for months been urging Fitzgerald to officially expand his investigation to include an examination of the motives behind the leaks by Libby, focusing in particular on the question of whether the administration's intent was to discredit Ambassador Wilson's revelation that Iraq had never sought uranium from Niger or other African countries. If that is proven to be the case, Hinchey has argued, "President Bush and other top members of his administration knowingly lied about uranium to the Congress, which is a crime."
"It is my belief, as well as the belief of my 39 House colleagues who signed my original letter to Special Counsel Fitzgerald, that he has the authority and obligation to expand his investigation to investigate the lies about uranium, which are the true heart of this case," Hinchey explained Thursday, in a statement outlining his intention to step up efforts to press for the expansion of the investigation.
The congressman is laying down the line that members of Congress, be they members of the Democratic opposition or honest Republicans who are beginning to recognize the extent to which they have been deceived by Bush, Cheney and their aides, will need to embrace at a moment when the administration and its media echo chamber will be doing everything in their power to constrain Fitzgerald's investigation.
Says Hinchey: "The heart of the CIA leak case cannot and must not be ignored."
In November 2004, the village of Luxemburg, Wisconsin, voted to re-elect George W. Bush by a hefty margin of 701 to 431. Always a GOP stronghold, the community voted for other Republicans as well, even the challenger to popular Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, who was winning by a landslide statewide.
There's not much question that the majority of the 2,000 residents of this rural northeastern Wisconsin village of well-maintained homes, neat storefronts and large churches think of themselves as old-fashioned Midwestern conservatives.
So, by the calculus of the Bush White House and its echo chamber in the national media, Luxemburg ought to be just about the last place in the United States to express doubts about the President's handling of the war in Iraq. And surely, no national pundit would have predicted that the village would vote in favor of a referendum declaring: "Be it hereby resolved, that the Village of Luxemburg urges the United States to begin an immediate withdrawal of its troops from Iraq, beginning with the National Guard and Reserves."
Yet on Tuesday, the citizens of Luxemburg did exactly that, endorsing the immediate withdrawal referendum with a clear majority of their votes.
Luxemburg was not the only Wisconsin community that voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004 but voted against his war Tuesday. Up the road from Luxemburg, the villages of Casco and Ephraim voted for Bush in 2004 and immediate withdrawal in 2006. Across the state in northwest Wisconsin, the towns of Ojibwa, Draper and Edgewater, all of which backed Bush two years ago, voted against the war on Tuesday.
Their votes came as part of a statewide rejection of the war that saw twenty-four of thirty-two communities where Bring the Troops Home Now referendums were on local ballots vote for withdrawal. Added together, the referendums produced a resounding 40,043 to 25,641 vote against the continued US occupation of Iraq--producing an antiwar margin of 61 percent to 39 percent.
Apologists for the war--from the Republican National Committee to conservative talk-radio hosts and Fox TV commentators--are spinning like crazy to suggest that the referendums offer a reflection only of liberal, anti-Bush sentiment in college towns such as Madison, the state capital of Wisconsin.
The problem that the spin doctors are running into is that, while the Bring the Troops Home referendum won Madison by a thumping 68-to-32 margin, similar referendums won by a 70-to-30 margin in the well-to-do Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood and by a dramatic 82-to-18 margin in the community of Couderay in rural Sawyer County.
"These thirty-two communities were a representative sample of the state, with twenty-two of the thirty-two located in counties that George Bush won in the 2004 election," explained Steve Burns, Program Coordinator of the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice. "This is yet more evidence of a new antiwar majority in Wisconsin."
It was particularly notable that a Bring the Troops Home referendum won in a LaCrosse, the western Wisconsin city where Democratic and Republican presidential candidates--including Bush--have regularly campaigned over the years because the region around it is seen as a bellwether for national politics. Indeed, despite an aggressive campaign against the withdrawal referendum by LaCrosse County Republicans, the Bring the Troops Home measure won by a solid 55-to-45 margin.
It is true that referendums were defeated in eight cities, villages and towns. But only in two of those communities did the vote for immediate withdrawal fall below 45 percent.
The Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice, the Green Party and other groups that plotted the campaign for these referendums -- and that received important assistance from new Liberty Tree Foundation and the national Voters for Peace initiative -- took a number of risks. They wrote resolutions with uncompromising "immediate withdrawal" language, and they put them on the ballot not just in traditionally liberal communities but in traditionally conservative cities, villages and towns. They bet that they could win the votes not just of liberals but of honest conservatives, and in so doing they secured a message that--for all the attempts to spin it away--cannot be denied.
By a wide margin, an honest cross-section of communities in a Midwestern "battleground" state--where Bush and Kerry wrestled to a virtual tie in 2004, and where the House delegation is split between four Democrats and four Republicans--have told Washington that it is time to bring the troops home.
When he was making his name in American politics, as then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich's political enforcer, Tom DeLay was confronted by fellow Republicans who urged him to embrace a bipartisan budget compromise. Borrowing an expletive from Dick Cheney, DeLay growled, "F--k that, it's time for all-out war."
DeLay's war on American democracy--which included not just radical gerrymandering of Congressional districts and the formalization of pay-to-play policy-making in Washington but the crude manipulation of the recount that made George Bush President--is now coming to a close. Under indictment, forced from the House leadership by scandal and faced with the prospect of defeat in November, DeLay has signaled that he will quit the House of Representatives that he has effectively run for the better part of a decade.
Histories of this dark passage in the American story will record that no political figure fought harder or longer to dismantle traditions of compromise and cooperation in Congress than DeLay, a man who targeted those with whom he disagreed as zealously as he had once gone after the vermin he chased in his previous career as an exterminator. As far as DeLay was concerned, the niceties of democracy were a cruel impediment to his new career path. So he went to war with the process itself on behalf of his own political advancement--and that of the paymasters in the industries he served more diligently than his Texas constituents, his conservative ideology or his Republican Party.
While it is surely the case that the Texas Congressman's career was in steep decline following his indictment on campaign-corruption charges and his forced resignation from the majority leader position, for so long as Tom DeLay remained within grasping reach of the levers of power in Washington, the prospect of a further dismantling of democracy remained all too real.
It is this truth that makes DeLay's decision to cheat the voters of his Texas district out of an opportunity to remove him from Congress cause for at least a measure of hope with regard to the harrowing circumstance of the American experiment. Yes, of course, it would have been satisfying to watch DeLay defeated on election day. But even the faint risk that this worst of all Washington players might have clawed his way back to another term in the House--and, with that, another chance, however remote, to again take charge of the chamber--was serious enough that the news of his decision to quit rather than fight marks at least a small turning point in the struggle to reconstruct the democracy that the man they called "The Hammer" so consistently and so brutally battered.
In Washington, where the press corps rarely chooses to examine the real political stories of the day, DeLay will be most commonly remembered for his scheming to warp the redistricting processes of his home state in order to gerrymander a half dozen Democrats out of seats they had won fair and square in districts drawn by a judicial panel based on the results of the 2000 Census. His scandalous machinations did more than shift the character of the state's House delegation; they created the opening for a courageous prosecutor, Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, to win the indictments that hastened the end of DeLay's reign of error.
There will, as well, be appropriate if incomplete discussion of DeLay's dirty dealings inside the Beltway--his "K Street Project" to formalize links between campaign giving, lobbying and legislating, his thought-policing of the Republican Party, his sex-crazed impeachment of a President he hated for being popular, his creation of a Potemkin Speaker of the House in the form of the bumbling Denny Hastert--and a few commentators will venture the "bold" suggestion that the Texan might have done a bit of harm to the integrity of the governing process.
But DeLay's crudest dismantling of democracy will be little mentioned today, just as it was barely noted at the time that he brought the hammer down.
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 2000, when the eyes of the nation were fixed on the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in downtown Miami, where a Dade County canvassing board was reviewing 10,750 uncounted ballots in Florida's disputed presidential contest between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, a riot orchestrated by DeLay's top aides and allies and carried out by Republican operatives flown in from Washington stopped the count. In so doing, DeLay's Izod-clad minions assured that the Bush campaign's Florida co-chair, Katherine Harris, would, in her capacity as secretary of state, be able to certify a 537-vote "win" for the Republican when the recount deadline arrived. It was that certification that allowed Florida Governor Jeb Bush to sign a Certificate of Ascertainment designating twenty-five Florida electors pledged to his brother. The paperwork was immediately transferred to the National Archives, where it would eventually be cited by the US Supreme Court in its decision to award the Florida electoral votes, and with them the presidency, to Bush.
DeLay's role in the recount, though little reported and even now little understood outside the inner circles of the Republican and Democratic parties, was definitional.
Furious that the Florida Supreme Court had on November 21, 2000, ordered a real recount of disputed ballots in the race that would decide the presidency, the House Republican leader had issued a statement that declared: "I hope this misguided ruling will be vigorously challenged."
DeLay was not making an idle threat. He was delivering marching orders to the troops in his war on democracy.
On the following day, a crowd of Republican aides and lobbyists flown in from Washington swarmed into the Goverment Center, chased Democratic observers out of the building and began banging on the doors of the area in which the recount of the key county's ballots had begun. Leading the "rioters" in chants of "Stop the Count" was Tom Pyle, a policy analyst in DeLay's office. This "vigorous challenge" to the count proved successful. The three-judge panel of canvassers--who after going through only a handful of the disputed ballots had already identified more than 150 additional votes for Gore--was shaken. After a team of sheriff's deputies restored order, the judges asked for a police escort to return them to the recounting room. There, they voted unanimously to stop the count. The additional votes for Gore that had already been discovered were discarded. Vote totals from Florida's most populous county reverted to pre-recount figures.
David Leahy, the supervisor of elections for the country, admitted that the riot "weighed heavy on our minds" as the decision to stop the recount was made. US Representative Carrie Meeks, a Democrat in Miami, was blunter. "The canvassing board bowed under pressure," she said.
That pressure was applied by DeLay, who would say after the US Supreme Court locked in the results for Bush: "This is something I've been working on for twenty-two years. I mean, we got it."
For once, DeLay was being modest. While Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris and Antonin Scalia all played their parts, it was DeLay who brought down the hammer that stopped the recount process at its most critical point.
DeLay will soon be gone, and there is a good chance that he will be convicted of at least a few of his crimes against democracy. But his greatest crimes will go unpunished, at least for so long as the Congress Tom DeLay created and the presidency that he made possible continue to punish America and the world.
John Nichols's book on the Florida recount fight of 2000, Jews for Buchanan (The New Press), features a chapter on DeLay's manipulation of the process. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. says, "If you care about American democracy, you must read this book."