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John Nichols

John Nichols

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The Real Gas Gougers

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.

Censor Pat Robertson?

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.

Bush vs. History

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.

President of Leisure

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."

Feingold vs. Bush

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.

Feingold Tunes in to Antiwar Sentiment

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.

Cindy Sheehan's Tragic Critics

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.

Here's the PLAN

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.

The President's Vacation From Reality

George Bush is on vacation in Crawford, Texas, taking the same August-long break that he did in the summer before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The appeal of Crawford appears to be that it provides the President with an opportunity to put aside all the troubles of the world and to focus on fixing fences and clearing brush. After all, it was during his previous vacation that Bush ignored an August 6, 2001, briefing document titled: "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S."

Bush's inner circle, a collection of neoconservative ideologues with an agenda of their own rather than an interest in what is best for the United States, made no effort in 2001 to steer the President's attention toward pressing matters of national security. And they remain determined to keep the woefully disengaged chief executive focused on busy work around the ranch rather than life-and-death questions of how this country should position itself in a complex and dangerous world.

But this summer, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq named Cindy Sheehan is making it harder for Bush to ignore the truth that his decisions have led to the unnecessary deaths of more than 1,800 Americans, and tens of thousands of Iraqis, while making both the United States and Iraq more vulnerable to violence.

Sheehan's 24-year-old son, Army Specialist Casey A. Sheehan, died on April 4, 2004--almost a year after Bush was dressed up in flight-suit drag to appear before a banner that declared "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq. Sheehan mourned, as any mother would. But then she organized, helping to found Gold Star Families for Peace, an organization of relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq who are demanding an end to the ill-fated occupation of that land and a redirection of US policy to achieve real security--as opposed to neoconservative misadventuring.

On August 3 of this year, Bush addressed the mounting death toll in Iraq with a pair of declarations:

1. "We have to honor the sacrifices of the fallen by completing the mission."


2. "The families of the fallen can be assured that they died for a noble cause."

Sheehan correctly identified Bush's words as "asinine and hurtful." And she headed for Crawford to try and confront the President on the August 6 anniversary of that neglected memorandum on bin Laden's intentions.

Sheehan went to Crawford with a pair of messages for the vacationing president:

1. We want our loved ones sacrifices to be honored by bringing our nation's sons and daughters home from the travesty that is Iraq immediately, since this war is based on horrendous lies and deceptions. Just because our children are dead, why would we want any more families to suffer the same pain and devastation that we are?


2. We would like for him to explain this "noble cause" to us and ask him why (presidential daughters) Jenna and Barbara are not in harm's way, if the cause is so noble.

Sheehan's bottom line, and that of Gold Star Families for Peace, is a blunt truth that the President has failed to consider: that the best way to honor the sacrifices of those who have died in Iraq is to end the occupation and bring the troops home now.

So far, the President has refused to listen to Cindy Sheehan, who says, "The sound I do want to hear is the sound of a nation waking up." But that wake-up call is being heard by the majority of Americans. In the latest Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, 54 percent of Americans surveyed said the US made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq. That number is up eight points from July. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said the Bush Administration deliberately misled the public about the reasons for going to war. Fifty-eight percent said that, no matter how long US troops remain in Iraq, they will not be able to establish a stable, democratic government there.

George Bush has been listening for too long to Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condi Rice. He should take a real vacation from the neocon fantasy factory of his misguided aides and sit down with someone who can introduce him to the reality of what is going on in Iraq and the world. The President should meet with Cindy Sheehan. And he should listen to this woman, who has sacrificed more than he or anyone in his inner circle ever has for America.

Hillary Clinton Lucks Out

New York Senator Hillary Clinton has always looked like a good bet to win re-election in 2006--probably by a margin wide enough to jumpstart the 2008 presidential campaign that many Democrats want the former First Lady to make.

With the decision of Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro to seek the Republican nomination to challenge her, however, Clinton's fortunes have taken a dramatic turn for the better.

Pirro, a hyper-ambitious publicity hound who frequently turns up on the Fox News Channel as a "legal affairs" commentator, had been weighing races for governor, attorney general or Clinton's Senate seat. With the fortunes of the state Republican Party in decline (even the conservative New York Post says that "New York's GOP is withering--fast"), Pirro was unlikely to win any of those posts. So she opted for the showcase contest: a challenge to the woman Republicans around the country love to hate. Pirro's announcement garnered homestate headlines, enthusiastic coverage on Fox and conservative talk radio and promises of hefty campaign contribution checks from Hillary-haters nationwide.

But, as the Post admitted, the Pirro campaign is "not one (Clinton's) likely to lose sleep over."

Here's why:

Pirro supports abortion rights and reproductive freedom. She's for civil unions and other gay rights measures. She favors affirmative action and opposes the strict immigration quotas favored by Congressional conservatives. She's a big backer of gun control. And she's been enthusiastic about precisely the sort of "big-government" solutions to child-welfare and community issues that Republicans condemn Clinton for promoting.

In other words, Pirro is more of a Rockefeller Republican than a Reaganite. Yet, in an era of sharper-than-ever partisan divisions, Pirro will attract few if any votes from moderate-to-liberal New Yorkers who have sent clear signals that they do not want to give aid and comfort to President Bush and Congressional Republicans. Don't forget that Bush lost New York state by more than 1,350,000 votes in 2004. In the same year, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer was re-elected with 71 percent of the vote and the GOP suffered a rare loss of a House seat in the Buffalo area while several of its House incumbents, such as upstater Tom Reynolds, saw their victory margins slashed.

It is comic to suggest that Clinton will lose many moderate-to-liberal votes to Pirro just because, in the words of the the King of the Hillary Haters, Dick Morris, "Hillary will have to end up running against someone who is quite like herself in her public positions." New Yorkers are savvy enough to know that, if Pirro wins, she will vote to put right-wing Republican opponents of choice, gay rights and gun control in charge of the Senate, and that will disqualify Pirro with precisely the sort of voters she would need to mount a serious challenge to Clinton.

Morris suggests that Pirro might be able to draw support as a "tough-on-terror" candidate, playing the national security card against Clinton as have other Republicans in other states. But that is an even more comic claim. There is nothing progressive, nor even liberal about Hillary Clinton's stance on national security issues--she wants to "stay the course" in Iraq, she's backed even the most over-the-top spending allocations for the war, she's been a supporter of the Patriot Act and other assaults on civil liberties and she's frequently more in line with the Bush Administration's approach on national security issues than a number of Senate Republicans.

When all is said and done, Clinton could end up benefitting from the "name" Republican challenge posed by Pirro, as it will reinforce the Democrat's position with base voters who might otherwise have problems with her centrist stances.

Indeed, if there is a candidate who is going to have a problem with her base, it's Pirro.

Several more conservative candidates are in the Republican race, including Ed Cox, a prominent New York lawyer who is the son-in-law of former President Richard Nixon, former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer and attorney Bill Brenner. Pirro may beat the three of them for the GOP nod. But one member of that trio is likely to be the nominee of the Conservative Party, a New York state institution that refused to back Schumer's moderate Republican challenger in 2004 and gained 220,960 votes for a little-known candidate running on its party line in the race. (In the presidential vote, the Conservatives backed Bush, who obtained 155,574 votes, more than 5 percent of his state total, on its line.)

If Pirro loses hundreds of thousands of votes to a Conservative Party nominee, she could well run a weaker race than Clinton's 2000 foe, former US Representative Rick Lazio, who had the Republican and Conservative endorsements. (Lazio got 43 percent of the vote that year, while polls currently put Pirro at around 29 percent.)

That may not be the worst of it for Pirro. While there is no question that Hillary Clinton suffers among some voters because of her association with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, Pirro has a husband problem of her own. As the Post's able politcal scribe, Fredric U. Dicker, gently notes, "Pirro's strength as a candidate is handicapped by her husband Albert's conviction in 2000 on federal income-tax fraud charges, an earlier revelation that he fathered an out-of-wedlock daughter, as well as the recent allegation by a Mafia informant that Al Pirro leaked confidential material from an ongoing Westchester DA's probe."

Plenty of ink will be spilled over the next fifteen months on the Clinton-Pirro race, and talk-TV and radio will love the fight. But if there was any cheering heard after Pirro announced on Monday, it was coming from Clinton's headquarters.

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