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Finally, we have discovered the roots of George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism."
On the heels of the president's "What, me worry?" response to the death, destruction and dislocation that followed upon Hurricane Katrina comes the news of his mother's Labor Day visit with hurricane evacuees at the Astrodome in Houston.
Commenting on the facilities that have been set up for the evacuees -- cots crammed side-by-side in a huge stadium where the lights never go out and the sound of sobbing children never completely ceases -- former First Lady Barbara Bush concluded that the poor people of New Orleans had lucked out.
"Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them," Mrs. Bush told American Public Media's "Marketplace" program, before returning to her multi-million dollar Houston home.
On the tape of the interview, Mrs. Bush chuckles audibly as she observes just how great things are going for families that are separated from loved ones, people who have been forced to abandon their homes and the only community where they have ever lived, and parents who are explaining to children that their pets, their toys and in some cases their friends may be lost forever. Perhaps the former first lady was amusing herself with the notion that evacuees without bread could eat cake.
At the very least, she was expressing a measure of empathy commensurate with that evidenced by her son during his fly-ins for disaster-zone photo opportunities.
On Friday, when even Republican lawmakers were giving the federal government an "F" for its response to the crisis, President Bush heaped praise on embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown. As thousands of victims of the hurricane continued to plead for food, water, shelter, medical care and a way out of the nightmare to which federal neglect had consigned them, Brown cheerily announced that "people are getting the help they need."
Barbara Bush's son put his arm around the addled FEMA functionary and declared, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."
Like mother, like son.
Even when a hurricane hits, the apple does not fall far from the tree.
In 1975, when New York City teetered on the brink of financial default, the refusal of then-President Gerald Ford to back an aid package inspired the famous New York Daily News headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead."
There was a measure of hyperbole in that headline, and it was at least a little unfair to Ford.
But in light of House Speaker Dennis Hastert's suggestion that rebuilding hurricane-ravaged New Orleans "doesn't make sense to me," it would not be a stretch to headline a report: "Hastert to City: Drop Dead."
Before the bodies had been pulled from the flood waters that have filled the streets of the Crescent City -- at least in part because of the failure of a Hastert-led Congress to allocate the funding needed to modernize the city's levees -- the Illinois Republican was displaying his brand of compassionate conservatism by saying of New Orleans: "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed."
Most significantly, Hastert said that Congress ought to ask "some real tough questions" about whether to allocate federal funding for the job of restoring one of America's most beloved cities. The House Speaker's suggestion that "it makes no sense" for Congress to rebuild a city that is seven feet below sea level might sound like a warped version of conservative "tough love" if the man who is is second in the line of succession to the presidency after Vice President Dick Cheney had been similarly dismissive of plans to rebuild coastal areas of Mississippi and Alabama.
Unlike New Orleans, a 300-year-old city with a rich history but not a particularly rich populace, some of the hardest-hit areas of Mississippi and Alabama were upscale waterfront communities that have been built up in recent years, as real-estate developers have claimed more and more coastal wetlands for their oceanview projects.
But those Republican-leaning areas, which are home to people like former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, were spared Hastert's talk of "tough questions."
Could the calculus really be this dark? Could the Speaker of the House really justify dismissing one community while caring for another for purely parisan purposes? Anyone who has watched this Speaker in action knows the answer to that question.
Hastert is about as crass a political player as you will find in Washington. Along with his political godfather, House Minority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the Speaker has made the House more partisan, and crude, than at any time in its history.
Hastert and DeLay keep vulture eyes on the political map. To the them, New Orleans is little more than a Democratic town full of African Americans, Latino immigrants, gays and lesbians and a few remaining pockets of southern white liberalism. Republican strategists have long been frustrated by New Orleans, a city so blue that it has often tipped the political balance in an otherwise red state. It was New Orleans that gave Democratic U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu her narrow first win in 1996 and her only slightly more comfortable reelection victory in 2002. Votes from New Orleans helped make Louisiana one of the few southern states to back Democrat Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection, and they kept Democrat Al Gore competitive with George W. Bush in 2000. In 2003, overwhelming support from New Orleans gave Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco a come-from-behind win in the state's 2003 gubernatorial contest.
Notably, both Mississippi and Alabama have Republican governors and senators and have voted solidly Republican in presidential contests for decades. While Bush lost New Orleans by a 3-1 margin in his two presidential runs, he carried the Congressional districts that make up southern Alabama and Mississippi by margins of almost 2-1.
Hastert's honest initial statement of his views regarding New Orleans was an embarrassment to Republican Congressional leaders, but who didn't want to be seen as insensitive when they were busy pulling together votes for a face-saving aid package. So Hastert issued a backtracking press release, while his allies circled the wagons and began peddling the line that, "Hey, Denny's just a gruff old wrestling coach with a tendency to be blunt" -- much as they did in 2004 when Hastert announced shortly before the presidential vote that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network was pulling for the election of Democrat John Kerry.
Don't believe it. Hastert and DeLay see everything in political terms. And in the political calculus of the House Republican Leadership, New Orleans and cities like it have for a long time been written off as expendable. That's why New Orleans didn't get the infrastructure assistance it needed when the city's aging levies could have been strengthened to withstand a storm even as powerful as Hurricane Katrina. And that's why, in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, it made no sense to Denny Hastert to give any hope at all to the people of New Orleans.
Don't doubt for a second that, in his heart of hearts, Hastert believes New Orleans and other big cities are expendable, just as he believes that federal dollars should be poured without limit into the reconstruction of the coast-hugging upscale developments of conservative southern Mississippi and Alabama.
In the months and years to come, as questions arise about whether the federal government is caring equitably for all of Hurricane Katrina's victims, people of good will should never forget Denny Hastert's first reaction. If the Speaker is not held to account at every turn, there is every reason to fear that he will return to it -- and that New Orleans and its citizens will be victimized once more.
How convenient for the oil industry that Hurricane Katrina hit just before the traditional Labor Day-weekend hike in gas prices. Now, instead of having to fake up some absolutely absurd excuse for jacking up gas prices, the industry can try and dupe Americans into thinking that they are suddenly paying $3.25 a gallon because of a storm.
The oil industry's response to Katrina has provided a reminder of why it is so exceptionally profitable.
Even before a start had been made on assessing the damage caused by the tropical storm, energy corporations were cashing in. And every indication is that they plan to continue doing so--perhaps taking prices over the $4-a-gallon mark, according to James DiGeorgia, editor and publisher of the Gold & Energy Advisor and author of The Global War for Oil.
No one debates the fact that the hurricane has done significant damage to oil rigs, refineries and delivery systems along the Gulf Coast, a region that accounts for roughly 10 percent of US refining capacity. But roughly 90 percent of US refining capacity remains fully functional and, it should not be forgotten, the US has not stopped importing oil.
Additionally, the Bush Administration jumped to the aid of the oil companies long before the relief effort was in full swing.
The Environmental Protection Agency suspended summertime antipollution measures, lifting the requirement that refiners lower fuel volatility and cut sulphur levels. At the same time, the Administration moved to release oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which was created more than three decades ago with the precise purpose of boosting fuel supplies in order to keep a lid on rising wholesale gasoline prices in a circumstance such as the one that has now developed.
Despite all the aid they are getting, however, the oil companies are not giving anything back. There is no evidence of a willingness on the part of these highly profitable corporations to sacrifice in a time of national emergency.
Make no mistake: These corporations should be able to absorb a hit. Over the past year and a half, the four largest oil companies--ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, Royal Dutch/Shell Group and BP Group PLC--have pocketed close to $100 billion in profits. During the first quarter of 2005 alone, those firms pulled in a cool $23 billion.
But instead of sharing the pain, they appear to be moving to squeeze every cent they can out of the crisis.
With oil-industry friends in charge of the White House and the Congress, don't expect much of a response from the federal level.
But this is one case where states have an ability to intervene.
Three years ago, in a move to protect against gouging, Hawaiian officials enacted legislation that allows state officials to set price caps on gasoline.
Now, as gas prices are skyrocketing in the aftermath of Katrina, a California legislator wants to give a state agency broad authority to regulate the cost of fuel.
State Senator Joe Dunn, a Democrat, has introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow the state Public Utilities Commission to require mandatory fuel reserves, set profit margins for oil and gas companies and order the construction of new pipelines. The measure would also bar agreements between energy corporations to reduce competition.
Dunn's amendment would allow the California Public Utilities Commission to cap prices, although the senator told reporters that step would only be taken as a last resort.
Dunn brings a refreshing bluntness to the discourse. Speaking to the Associated Press, he accused the oil industry of creating a dysfunctional market in California, in which competition is essentially eliminated. That, he explained, is why states need to step up their use of regulatory powers.
"Two years ago, when gasoline cost $2 a gallon, the industry said to give it time and prices would settle down. Now, we're seeing $3 a gallon," Dunn said. "People in California are no longer believing the excuses of the industry. If they can't fix their market behavior, we'll fix it for them."
It is certainly true that consumers should take steps to reduce their use of petroleum products--not just because of a storm in the Gulf of Mexico but because of the human, economic and environmental tolls this country's reliance on imported petroleum products has imposed. But petroleum companies should sacrifice as well. And if they are not willing to do so, states should remind them of their patriotic duty.
It appears that the only Americans who are not embarrassed by their associations with Pat Robertson, the former presidential contender and longtime host of the Christian Broadcasting Network program The 700 Club who lately has taken to recommending that the United States get back in the business of assassinating foreign leaders, are President Bush and Republican leaders in the House and Senate. Notably absent from the recriminations regarding Robertson's call for the "taking out" of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez were statements of condemnation from Bush, House majority leader Tom DeLay, Senate majority leader Bill Frist and the rest of the GOP leadership team.
Despite the fact that the President and his Congressional allies have failed to speak up in any significant way about Robertson's ranting, most responsible players in the national debate have done so. Denunciations have come from the progressive National Council of Churches and the more conservative National Association of Evangelicals--the leader of which said of Robertson: "He does not speak for all Christians or evangelicals"--as well as newspaper editorial pages and broadcast commentators on the right and left.
One of the toughest condemnations came from the Chicago Tribune's conservative editorial page, which declared that "Robertson's remarks should be taken for what they are: the ranting of a TV preacher who relies on controversy to keep the coffers full."
The widespread criticism of Robertson's advocacy for assassination has been heartening, as it suggests that most Americans have not degenerated into the indefensible relativism that would have the world's most powerful country offing critics like some sort of global organized-crime syndicate. The outcry is a reminder that the anger generated by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chair Frank Church (D-Idaho) and his detailing of five attempts by US operatives to assassinate foreign leaders during the 1960s and '70s was no fluke--and that Robertson is on the wrong side not just of history but of the American mainstream.
At a time when some pundits have suggested that the United States might want to abandon its three-decades-old ban on assassinating presidents and prime ministers, the broad rejection of Robertson's rant has to be seen as a welcome signal. Even if the President and his compatriots do not quite "get it," they have to recognize that Americans would not take kindly to any official effort to sanction state-sponsored "hits."
Now, however, comes the touchier question: Should Robertson be allowed to continue spewing his goofball theories and wrongheaded strategies on national television?
The so-called "Christian broadcaster" initially attempted to lie his way out of a tough corner--he claimed he hadn't brought up assassination, when in fact he had, saying that "if (Chávez) thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it"--did not inspire confidence in him as an credible or honorable individual.
But Robertson finally offered a half-hearted apology in which he said, "Is it right to call for assassination? No..." So it appears that the man who sought the 1988 Republican presidential nomination has not lost all grounding in reality, even if his touchstone is more likely self-interest than recognition that he was wrong.
Still, decisions about who should or should not be heard cannot be made on the basis of the presumed moral failings of a particular broadcaster.
As such, it was right that executives with the "ABC Family" cable television channel rejected a call from Media Matters for America for the network to stop airing The 700 Club. Instead, the network quietly added a disclaimer that reads, "The preceding CBN telecast does not reflect the views of ABC Family"--a clear acknowledgment that the Media Matters folks were making an important point about Robertson's faults that stopped short of bumping his program off a popular cable channel.
Of course, if a progressive player in a similar position had called for killing off the troublesome conservative leader of some foreign land, cries for removing that individual from the public square that cable television has become would have been deafening. But progressives ought not embrace the politics of censorship that is so popular with the right these days.
Misguided as his initial statement may have been, Robertson's apology made talk of canceling the long-running television program of so prominent a figure extreme.
Wrong as he so frequently is, Robertson has a right to be heard until the marketplace of ideas finally rejects the damaged goods he so frequently peddles. Indeed, the outcry over Robertson's remarks reminds us that even right-wing broadcasters are sometimes held to account.
The Iraqis are having a hard time pulling together a constitution quickly enough to meet President Bush's public-relations timeline.
As I am not an Iraqi, I have no interest in meddling in the affairs of that troubled land. Of course, I would prefer that the Iraqis establish a system of self-governance that, like ours in the United States, seeks to erect a wall of separation between church and state, preserve the rights of small states and political minorities, protect against military and police abuses, and guarantee freedom of speech, freedom of the press and all the other basics of a functioning democracy.
If I was really writing a wish list, I might also recommend that the Iraqis do a better job than we do of limiting the power of corporate monopolies, keep special-interest money out of their politics, treating healthcare and education as basic rights and establishing reliable electoral systems.
But as an American, I should not be worrying about perfecting the Iraqi constitution before I go about the work of getting things right here at home.
This seems like basic logic to me.
But that logic escapes our President.
It is true that George W. Bush was not born and raised in my home region of the Upper Midwest, where the legacy of Wisconsin Progressive, Minnesota Farmer-Labor and North Dakota Non-Partisan League activism has imparted a rich faith in the perfectability of the American experiment and a keen awareness of the folly of telling the peoples of other lands how to organize their governments. As such, the President has little familiarity with what I happen to think is the healthiest of American political traditions.
But it would be reassuring if the President at least had a passing acquaintance with American history.
As efforts to reach agreement on an Iraqi constitution have stumbled again and again, Bush has sought to comfort in a bizarre analogy.
"We had a little trouble with our own conventions writing a constitution," the President told reporters in Idaho the other day, continuing a pattern of comparing the US and Iraqi experiences of writing a constitution that began several months ago when Bush explained, "[We] must remember the history of our own country. The American Revolution was followed by years of chaos.... Our first effort at a governing charter, the Articles of Confederation, failed miserably--it took several years before we finally adopted our Constitution and inaugurated our first President.... No nation in history has made the transition from tyranny to a free society without setbacks and false starts. What separates those nations that succeed from those that falter is their progress in establishing free institutions. So to help young democracies succeed, we must help them build free institutions to fill the vacuum created by change."
To hear members of the Bush Administration and their amen corner in the media tell it, suicide bombs must have been going off like clockwork in Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Charleston back in the 1780s. But, of course, that was never the case.
While there were rowdy demonstrations and loud dissents during the years following the end of the British occupation of the Empire's former colonies along the Eastern Seaboard of North America, the period was characterized by relative calm as factions within the new nation debated the extent to which states should cooperate with one another.
Try as Bush and his followers may, they will find no historical record of Ayatollah Alexander Hamilton's militia hunting down followers of radical secularist Thomas Jefferson, nor of rival Christian gangs blowing up one another's houses of worship. Nor will they find a record of renegade Green Mountain Boys gunning down foreign troops who were supposedly present to "help young democracies succeed."
In fact, there were no foreign troops prodding the process along. The French, who played a critical role in helping the American revolutionaries throw off British colonial oppression, exited quickly. The Marquis de Lafayette, as good a friend as the American rebels had, did not return to the new republic until 1824.
To be sure, Lafayette had ideas about how the Continentals ought to organize the American experiment. But he was smart enough to recognize that constitutions are organic documents that cannot be written under timelines imposed by foreign powers, just as he recognized that democracies cannot form or flourish under occupation.
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.
Often, when an executive faces lingering questions about his skills, he works extra hard to make sure that every "i" is dotted and every "t" is crossed.
Not so George W. Bush.
Indeed, if the "CEO of the USA" who is currently enjoying a five-week sojourn at his ranch in Texas keeps vacationing at the same rate, he will have spent the better part of two years of his presidency away from work.
Bush achieved a leisure landmark this month. The previous record for presidential slacking-off was 335 days. On August 18, Bush surpassed that number of days off, and he still has more than three years left in his second term.
Britain's Financial Times newspaper has dubbed Bush "the best-rested president in U.S. history."
That's a dubious distinction for a man who is not known for his attention to detail. Critics have not hesitated to suggest that the President's rest-ethic has cost the country dearly--after all, it was in August 2001, during the President's first extended stay in Crawford, that a briefing paper crossed Bush's desk detailing Osama bin Laden's intention to launch terrorist attacks within the United States. Instead of putting the country on high alert, the President put the report aside and continued relaxing--returning to Washington only a few days before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
While Bush may not be very good at managing major endeavors--he ran four corporations into the ground and then took a make-work job as a baseball team executive before finally turning to the family business of politics--the President is no slacker when it comes to rest and relaxation.
Now, if only he'd help the rest of us to get a break.
While Bush has been taking almost one week out of every month off since assuming the presidency, a substantial proportion of Americans are lucky if they get one week a year of paid vacation. And millions of workers get no compensated time off.
The United States, unlike other industrialized countries, fails to set a base standard for paid holidays. European countries have long required corporations to provide workers with three, four or even five weeks of paid vacation time. "Even developing countries often force companies to allow employees some time to recharge their batteries," the Financial Times notes. "El Salvador, Indonesia and Mongolia have all established a minimum of 10 to 15 days paid leave a year."
That's hardly a break at all when compared with Bush's annual average of almost ten weeks of vacation. But its a good deal more than most American workers will ever enjoy under the current system. Indeed, Americans are now working almost 500 more hours a year than their Dutch counterparts and thirty-seven hours--almost a full week--more than the average worker in the famously overworked country of Japan.
That's a radical reversal of the circumstance that existed in the 1950s and early '60s, when the Japanese and the Europeans worked more hours than Americans--and when Americans enjoyed greater prosperity and, if polls are to be believed, a greater sense of satisfaction with their lives.
Is it any wonder that Americans now complain that they have less time to spend with their families, less time for volunteering in their communities and less time for recreation and physical fitness than at any point in history? How appropriate then that, when reflecting on Bush's time-off record, economist Phineas Baxandall, of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, observed that "George Bush is one of the few Americans who has time for family values."
Los Angeles -- US Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, will turn up the volume on his challenge to the Bush White House's failed approach to national security when he delivers a high-profile address Tuesday in this West Coast city.
The speech on national security, which will be delivered at LA's prestigious Town Hall forum, comes on the heels of Feingold's announcement that he will press for an Iraq "exit strategy" that would see US troops withdrawn from that country by December 2006. With his willingness to discuss a specific timelime for withdrawal, Feingold says, he is "breaking the taboo" that has stymied honest debate about the US mission in the Middle East and the point at which it can be declared complete.
The maverick senator is also drawing attention to a potential--if still decidely uphill--run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination as a progressive alternative to prowar Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Evan Bayh.
Predictably, Feingold's decision to endorse a timeline has drawn criticism from those who believe that the only way to "support the troops" and "keep America safe" is to maintain an open-ended occupation of Iraq--no matter how deadly it is for Americans and Iraqis, no matter how unstable it makes Iraq, no matter how much it does to stir resentment toward the United States.
The Bush White House dismissed Feingold's plan with a predictable claim that it "would also send the wrong message to our troops. We are serious about completing the mission, and they need to know that they have our full support. And it would send the wrong message to the enemy, who, as the President has said many times, would just then have to wait us out."
Vice President Dick Cheney chimed in as well, declaring that "Iraq is a critical front in the war on terror, and victory there is critical to the future security of the US and other free nations."
Of course, Cheney was the visionary who announced on the eve of the invasion of Iraq that US troops would be "greeted as liberators." And the Bush White House is the operation that decked the President out in flight-suit drag for a "Mission Accomplished" photo opportunity at precisely the point when the occupation of Iraq was starting to go awry. So their credibility is shot.
But that does not mean that Americans will casually endorse Feingold's timeline.
While polls suggest that the citzenry is exceptionally ill-at-ease with Bush's handling of the war--almost two-thirds of those polled now disagree with his approach--they need to hear more about how critics of the war would:
A) Get US troops out of Iraq, leaving a complete disaster behind, and
B) Offer a sounder approach to the national-security concerns that White House political czar Karl Rove has so ably exploited since September 11, 2001.
That will be Feingold's challenge in Los Angeles.
So far, no Democrat who is seriously pondering a 2008 presidential run has offered a coherent statement of opposition to the Bush Administration's misguided strategies. Senators Clinton of New York, Bayh of Indiana and Joe Biden of Delaware are all strong supporters of the war and of the Bush Administration's general approach, while former North Carolina Senator John Edwards has sought to straddle the issues in much the same way that his running-mate on the 2004 Democratic ticket, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, has.
If Feingold can strike the proper balance between sanity and security--grounding his push for a withdrawal timeline and a more thoughtful foreign policy in a clear commitment to do a better job of funding homeland security and developing the nation's intelligence-gathering and international-policing capacities--he could emerge as a serious contender for the 2008 presidential nomination. At the least, he ought to be able to force the debate that must occur prior to the 2008 election onto the higher ground that Clinton, Kerry and other prominent Democrats have so far been unable or unwilling to occupy.
President Bush and US Senator Russ Feingold have taken dramatically different approaches to the traditional August break from Washington intrigues.
Bush has gone into hiding, while Feingold has gone to talk with Americans.
It should not come as much of a surprise that the man who has gotten in touch with the country's grassroots--Feingold--has recognized the need to set a timeline for the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq. Nor should it be shocking that aides to the man who has cut himself off from the national discourse--Bush--have trotted out tired old excuses for rejecting Feingold's proposal to set a December 2006 deadline for extracting US troops from the Middle East quagmire.
As he has in the past, Bush is spending August in seclusion, holed up behind the security fences that surround his ranch in rural Texas. According to official accounts, he is attempting to read a book about salt and to learn how to ride a bike without falling off. Unofficially, but quite obviously, he has spent most of his time dodging requests for face time with Cindy Sheehan, the mother of one of the more than 1,800 Americans killed in the President's ill-fated invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Feingold has gone a completely different route from Bush. He has traveled extensively, and made himself available to anyone who wants to talk with him about the Iraq imbroglio at more than fifteen town-hall meetings in his home state. What Feingold has heard during listening sessions with constituents across the heartland state of Wisconsin has emboldened him to become the first senator to call for setting a date to end the occupation and bring the troops home.
"I call what I am doing breaking the taboo," the Democrat who is being boomed as a potential 2008 presidential candidate said. "[Most] senators have been intimidated and are not talking about a time frame. We have to make it safe to go in the water and discuss this. A person shouldn't be accused of not supporting troops just because we want some clarity on our mission in Iraq."
Of course, the Bush Administration--which has resisted all efforts to provide clarity as regards the Iraq mission--dismissed Feingold's call by claiming that "It would...send the wrong message to our troops. We are serious about completing the mission, and they need to know that they have our full support. And it would send the wrong message to the enemy, who, as the President has said many times, would just then have to wait us out."
In fact, there is nothing further from the truth. As Feingold noted, the former chief of Australia's armed forces, General Peter Cosgrove, has been arguing that the foreign troop presence has fueled terrorist activity in Iraq. Noting that Cosgrove has called for foreign troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2006, Feingold said, "Those remarks were constructive, and we need to be having this discussion here at home. I am putting a vision of when this ends on the table in the hope that we can get the focus back on our top priority, and that is keeping America and the American people safe."
While the White House bumbles deeper into the quagmire, it is Feingold who says he wants to take steps to establish an exit strategy that will "undermine the recruiting efforts and the unity of insurgents, encourage Iraqi ownership of the transition process and bolster the legitimacy of the Iraqi authorities, reassure the American people that our Iraq policy is not directionless and, most importantly, create space for a broader discussion of our real national security priorities."
The differences between the Bush and Feingold approaches are easily explained: Bush refuses to listen even to the concerns of the grieving mothers of America's war dead. Feingold, on the other hand, has listened closely enough to recognize that the American people want a way out of the Iraq mess. And while the Wisconsin senator's way may not be the perfect route--as he readily admits--it provides the impetus for a real debate that honest observers of the crisis have been longing for.
While debating conservative pundit David Horowitz on Ron Reagan's MSNBC show the other night, I was struck by the desperation with which supporters of the war have turned their fury on Cindy Sheehan, the mother of an American soldier killed in Iraq who has been trying to get an audience with President Bush.
Horowitz, the former left-wing zealot who is now a right-wing zealot, described the woman who has camped out near Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch as "hateful," accused her of dishonoring the memory of her son and promised that if Sheehan and other anti-war activists succeed in bringing an end to the occupation of Iraq then "rivers of blood" will flow in the streets of America. It was a remarkable performance, so much so that even Horowitz admitted that he was "emotional" about the subject.
Of course, Horowitz is wrong, on every point. But it is difficult to get angry with him, or even to take his ranting seriously. When Reagan asked me if I wanted to "dignify" Horowitz's comments with a response, I declined, except to express a measure of sympathy for Horowitz and other true believers who have become so frenzied in their need to defend the Iraq imbroglio that they feel they must attack a grieving mother who wants to make sure that no more parents will have to bury their sons and daughters as a result of the Bush administration's arrogance.
The rapidly dwindling minority of Americans who continue to search for some rationale for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq has been driven to the brink of breakdown by the success of Sheehan's protest. Go to the website of William F. Buckley's National Review magazine and you will find Sheehan described in headlines as "nutty," dismissed by columnists as "the mouthpiece... of howling-at-the-moon, bile-spewing Bush haters" and accused of "sucking up intellectual air" that, presumably, would be better utilized by Condoleezza Rice explaining once more that it would be wrong to read too much into the August 6, 2001, briefing document that declared: "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S." Human Events, the conservative weekly newspaper, dismisses Sheehan as a "professional griever" who "can claim to be in perpetual mourning for her fallen son" -- as if there is some time limit on maternal sorrow over the death of a child.
Fox News Channel spinner-in-chief Bill O'Reilly accuses Sheehan of being "in bed with the radical left," including -- horrors! -- "9-11 families" that are still seeking answers about whether, in the first months of 2001, the Bush administration was more focused on finding excuses to attack Iraq than on protecting Americans from terrorism. And Rush Limbaugh was on the radio the other day ranting about how, "(Sheehan's) story is nothing more than forged documents. There's nothing about it that's real..." (Just to clarify for Limbaugh listeners: Cindy Sheehan's 24-year-old son Casey really did die in Iraq, and his mother really would like to talk with President Bush about all those claims regarding WMDs and al-Qaida ties that the administration used to peddle the "case" for war.)
The pro-war pundits who continue to defend the occupation of Iraq are freaked out by the fact that a grieving mother is calling into question their claim that the only way to "support the troops" is by keeping them in the frontlines of George W. Bush's failed experiment. Bush backers are horrified that Sheehan's sincere and patriotic anti-war voice has captured the nation's attention.
What the pro-war crowd does not understand is that Cindy Sheehan is not inspiring opposition to the occupation. She is merely putting a face on the mainstream sentiments of a country that has stopped believing the president's promises with regard to Iraq. According to the latest Newsweek poll, 61 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush's handing of the war, while just 26 percent support the president's argument that large numbers of U.S. military personnel should remain in Iraq for as long as it takes to achieve the administration's goals there.
The supporters of this war have run out of convincing lies and effective emotional appeals. Now, they are reduced to attacking the grieving mothers of dead soldiers. Samuel Johnson suggested that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. But, with their attacks on Cindy Sheehan, the apologists for George Bush's infamy have found a new and darker refuge.
One need not be a student of Tom DeLay's dirty dealings to recognize that the corruption of Washington is very nearly complete. Occupied by a president and vice president who are oilmen first and statesmen last, a Congress where Republicans and Democrats delay their votes until they have checked their campaign fund-raising receipts and a judiciary that is rapidly being packed with "bought" corporate lawyers such as Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, the nation's capital often seems completely beyond redemption.
It is not quite so true in the nation's 50 state capitals, however. Despite the ugliest efforts of corporate America -- via a lobbying frontgroup, the American Legislative Exchange Council -- to warp the process from Augusta (Maine) to Sacremento (California) as thoroughly as it has in Washington, there are still openings for progressive policymaking at the state level. Those openings are the target of the new Progressive Legislative Action Network (PLAN), a coalition developed to provide reform-minded legislators with strategic and research support as they seek to address the pressing economic and social issues that are left untended in a time of corporate hegemony.
"The goal is to bring as diverse a coalition together as possible so that our side has a cohesive agenda in the states," says David Sirota, the veteran progressive activist who has helped organize the network. "For too long, conservatives have been able to use huge sums of money to push the most radical right-wing policies through state legislatures. PLAN is committed to putting together the necessary resources and necessary coalitions to help progressive legislators stop this unchecked extremism, and start passing legislation that makes state governments work for ordinary citizens, not just monied special interests."
PLAN was set to formally launch Tuesday in Seattle, where the National Conference of State Legislatures gathers this week for its 2005 "Strong States, Strong Nation" annual meeting. The launch features appearances by former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president who has reemerged as an aggressive advocate for political and economic initiatives aimed addressing the gap between rich and poor in the United States, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who for many years was the most powerful player in the California state Assembly, and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, whose 2004 election proved that progressive Democratic reformers can win in so-called "red states." The launch is being co-sponsored by MoveOn.org, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the United Steelworkers union, and progressive philanthropists Andy and Deborah Rappaport -- support that provides an encouraging indication of the openness of powerful players on the left to the state-based work that will provide the models for renewal of the progressive movement nationally.
"Starting in the states" is not a new idea. In fact, most significant reform movements in American history have begun at the municipal or state level and built upward. At the dawn of the past century, the state-based progressive movements of the upper Midwest created what Justice Louis D. Brandeis referred to as "laboratories of democracy," where problems were addressed by creative legislators and governors in ways that federal officials eventually chose to mirror -- at first in the form of individual initiatives on issues such as child labor but ultimately with Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.
Sirota, who has worked as an aide to U.S. Representatives Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and David Obey, D-Wisconsin, and his PLAN co-chair, former Montana State Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty, know that while there are important precedents for state-based work, there are also mighty challenges. ALEC, the corporate-funded legislative network, has been polluting the process for decades, building alliances with both Republican and Democratic legislators; and corporate interests have begun to pour money not only into legislative contests but into races for state judgeships and attorney general and public service commission posts. Additionally, an increasingly corporatized and homogenized media no longer provides the distinct coverage of state politics that was the norm 100, or even 20, years ago.
Previous attempts to develop progressive alternatives to ALEC, in particular, and corporate influence, in general, at the state level have met with mixed success. And there are no guarantees that PLAN will be any more successful. But there are reasons to be encouraged. Sirota and Doherty are smart players with strong track records of progressive activism in challenging settings. They have headquartered their group in Helena, Montana, rather than Washington. And they have chosen an unapologetic approach best evidenced by Sirota's remarks at this month's Steelworkers union convention, where he told delegates, "Washington, DC, today is so overrun by Big Money and so controlled by an entrenched party establishment that there is almost no hope to change things there in the short run. And more important, truly successful movements in American history have always started at the grassroots level, not in the insulated halls of elite power. Why? Because Corporate America has a harder time controlling fifty states than it does controlling one city. It is easier to buy off one set of politicians than it is to buy off fifty separate political arenas. Additionally, state lawmakers are inherently closer to the concerns of their constituents than any Washington politician ever could be."
Sirota's got his history right. And he's got his politics right. Recognizing that "there are literally hundreds of state lawmakers all over America right now ready to fight on behalf of ordinary, hard-working Americans, ready to start helping citizens raise their wages, improve their access to healthcare, protect their pensions and, in general, secure their economic future," he says that with this base of progressive legislators, "Now it is time to fight back."
While the time is right, and the need to begin chalking up victories at the state level is more pressing than at any point since the last progressive movement took form, PLAN's organizers understand that they are in entering a serious fight. Until there is fundamental campaign finance and ethics law reform, corporate interests will always be able to buy legislative influence with campaign contributions and huge lobbying expenditures. Progressive interests must rely on the willingness of honest legislators in both parties to entertain their ideas, and on popular pressure from grassroots groups.
While the task is daunting, the initiative is worth undertaking.As Louis Brandeis noted decades ago, "one of the happy incidents of the federal system (is) that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments." Ultimately, the justice explained, states can lead the nation in a process that will "remould, through experimentation, our economic practices and institutions to meet changing social and economic needs."
So what's PLAN's plan? Hopefully, to prove that the wisdom of Brandeis with regard to state-based activism has carried through to the 21st century.