John Nichols | The Nation

John Nichols

John Nichols

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

Guarantee the Right to Vote

As US Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, chaired Tuesday's hearing on irregularities in the presidential voting in Ohio on November 2, the Rev. Jesse Jackson warned that the session must be more than merely an opportunity to "vent."

"We cannot vent and then have Congress not act. If these reports are not investigated, we have all wasted our time," the two-time candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination declared. "This cannot simply be an academic venting session. Take this struggle to the streets and legitimize it there, as they did in Selma."

Jackson is right. There is no question that the voting and ballot counting processes in Ohio--and a number of other states--were deeply flawed. Those flaws are well outlined in the letter that Conyers and eleven other Democratic representatives sent earlier this month to Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. (Click here to read the letter and other recent communications from Conyers to state and federal officials regarding the electoral troubles in Ohio.)

The letter, as well as testimony at today's hearing in Washington, makes a convincing case for continuing the examination of the mess that Blackwell, a Bush partisan, and his team made of the voting in Ohio on November 2. Necessarily, that examination must include the full recount requested by Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb and others.

But it is important to recognize that the sort of election problems that were discussed at Tuesday's hearing are not isolated to Ohio--just as the problems that came to light during the Florida recount fight of 2000 were not isolated to the Sunshine State.

The United States lacks a coherent and consistent set of standards for registering to vote, voting, counting ballots or recounting them. Thus, every election cycle brings new instances of disenfranchisement and doubts about the validity of the process.

On the eve of the Conyers hearing, the new group Progressive Democrats of America released a well-reasoned list of electoral reforms which can and should become central to the activism of everyone who is dissatisfied with the process--and the result--of the November 2 election. PDA argues that America needs:

* A Constitutional amendment confirming the right to vote.

* A required paper record for all electronic and electronically tabulated voting systems.

* Same-day registration for all Americans.

* The creation of unified federal standards for national elections.

* Meaningful equal protection of voting rights by such means as equal voting systems, equal numbers of machines, and equal time to vote.

* An end to partisan oversight of the electoral process.

* Extended voting periods to allow all voters a meaningful opportunity to vote.

* Instant Run-off Voting and Proportional Representation.

* Publicly financed elections for federal offices.

That's a long list. And the best place to begin is with the basics: guaranteeing the right to vote.

During the Supreme Court deliberations in 2000 on the Bush v. Gore case that ultimately determined the occupant of the White House, Justice Antonin Scalia went out of his way to establish that the individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for the president of the United States. US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Illinois, has set out to rectify that glaring omission by proposing an amendment to the Constitution that would cure a lot of what ails our political process.

Here's the text of the amendment

SECTION 1. All citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, shall have the right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides. The right to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States, any State, or any other public or private person or entity, except that the United States or any State may establish regulations narrowly tailored to produce efficient and honest elections.

SECTION 2. Each State shall administer public elections in the State in accordance with election performance standards established by the Congress. The Congress shall reconsider such election performance standards at least once every four years to determine if higher standards should be established to reflect improvements in methods and practices regarding the administration of elections.

SECTION 3. Each State shall provide any eligible voter the opportunity to register and vote on the day of any public election.

SECTION 4. Each State and the District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall establish and abide by rules for appointing its respective number of Electors. Such rules shall provide for the appointment of Electors on the day designated by the Congress for holding an election for President and Vice President and shall ensure that each Elector votes for the candidate for President and Vice President who received a majority of the popular vote in the State or District.

The right-to-vote amendment is not all the reform that is needed. But if the goal of is to prevent future electoral fiascos--like Florida, Ohio or elsewhere--it is a vehicle for getting started. After all, who, aside from Antonin Scalia, would argue against the right to vote.

Secretary of Agribusiness

Democrats are talking a lot these days about how to reconnect with rural voters. It's an important conversation, as much about the decline in the party's fortunes can be traced to the fact that people who live on farms and in small towns, who not that many years ago were about evenly divided in their partisan loyalties, provided President Bush and the Republican Party with overwhelming support in 2004.

Unfortunately, most of the talk involves tortured discussions about how to tip-toe around issues such as gay rights and gun control.

Such discussions miss the point of the party's problem in small-town America completely. Gays and guns are only big issues in rural regions because Democrats have done a lousy job of distinguishing themselves on the big-ticket economic issues -- trade policy, protection of family farmers, rural development -- that define whether rural Americans can maintain their livelihoods and lifestyles.

Most national Democrats -- and let's start this list with the name "John Kerry" -- evidence little or no understanding of the fundamental economic concerns facing rural regions. That lack of awareness often leads them to miss opportunities to challenge the wrongheaded agenda of corporate agribusiness and the industry's allies in Washington.

One of the biggest mistakes that Democrats made in the first days of the Bush administration was to support the nomination of Ann Venemen to serve as Secretary of Agriculture. Venemen, with her close ties to agribusiness and the biotech industry, was precisely the wrong choice. An unyielding supporter of free-trade initiatives, and an unquestioning backer of even the most controversial schemes to genetically modify crops, Venemen was a dream-come-true pick for multinational food-processing corporations, chemical companies and big agribusiness interests. But for working farmers and the residents of rural regions and small towns, she was a nightmare selection.

Unfortunately, Senate Democrats quickly got on board to back the Venemen nomination, which sailed through the confirmation process with little challenge.

Now, after a four-year tenure that confirmed all the worst fears of her critics, Venemen is leaving the Department of Agriculture for what will undoubtedly be a very lucrative return to the agribusiness and biotech sinecures she occupied before her sojourn in Washington. And the president has again selected a nominee for Secretary of Agriculture who is unacceptable.

Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns, who the president has named to replace Venemen, has a troubling track record of taking the side of agribusiness over that of working farmers. To wit:

* Johanns has been a wild-eyed advocate for free-trade initiatives, particularly the granting of permanent most-favored nation trading status to China. In less than a decade, as the free-trade agenda has been implemented, America's traditional advantage in agricultural trade has dropped by 61.6 percent. "This is a man-made catastrophe, an economic disaster," Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen says of the current free-trade regimen. "Through conscious policy we are outsourcing food production."

* Johanns was an aggressive supporter of the 2002 farm bill, which continued the misguided practice of directing substantial portions of U.S. farm-support spending into the treasuries of the largest agribusiness conglomerates and factory-farm operations. "This farm bill continues to tap taxpayers' hard earned money to keep the farm economy limping along while the giant food processors and exporters reap cheap commodities to expand their control of the world's food supply," says George Naylor, president of the National Family Farm Coalition.

* As governor, Johanns initiated what Nebraska farm advocates saw as an attempt to gut I-300, the state's 23-year-old ban on corporations owning farmland or engaging in agricultural activity in the state. Johanns's push for a review of I-300 drew harsh criticism from family-farm advocates last year. "There seems to be no useful purpose in modifying Initiative 300 unless the purpose is to subject Initiative 300 to legal attack," argued Robert Broom, an attorney who successfully defended I-300 from constitutional challenge in federal trials. Under heavy pressure from rural voters, Nebraska legislators declined to give Johanns the authority to establish a task force that many expected to attack I-300.

Could Democrats block Bush's nomination of Johanns to serve as Secretary of Agriculture? It's not likely in a Senate where Republicans will hold a solid 55-45 majority. But opening a debate over the Johanns nomination would begin to establish that there are differences between the two parties when it comes to protecting the interests of rural America.

Making clear those distinctions will be critical if Democrats want to alter the color scheme on those blue state/red state maps of the United States. Right now, the maps are mostly Republican red. They will only show more Democratic blue if Democrats recognize that one of their most famous partisans, William Jennings Bryan, was right when he urged the party to take up the cause of rural America.

"Ah, my friends," Bryan told the Democratic National Convention of 1896, " we say not one word against those who live upon the Atlantic coast, but the hardy pioneers who have braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose -- the pioneers away out there [pointing to the West], who rear their children near to Nature's heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds -- out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their young, churches where they praise their Creator, and cemeteries where rest the ashes of their dead -- these people, we say, are as deserving of the consideration of our party as any people in this country. It is for these that we speak."

If Democrats want to improve their fortunes in the elections of 2006 and 2008, they should learn to speak once more for the interests of rural Americans. And the best place to start doing so is by challenging the pro-free trade, pro-corporate agribusiness policies of Mike Johanns -- and by speaking, bluntly, about the threat those policies pose to working farmers and rural America.

Love One Another? Not on NBC, CBS

The Rev. John Thomas, who serves as general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, is having a hard time figuring out why the same broadcasters that profited so handsomely from airing the vicious and divisive attack advertisements during the recent presidential election are now refusing to air an advertisement from his denomination that celebrates respect for one another and inclusiveness.

"It's ironic that after a political season awash in commercials based on fear and deception by both parties seen on all the major networks , an ad with a message of welcome and inclusion would be deemed too controversial," said Thomas. "What's going on here?"

The ad in question is part of an ambitious new national campaign by the UCC to appeal to Americans who feel alienated from religion and churches, and to equip the denomination's 6,000 congregations across the U.S. to welcome newcomers. In an effort to break through the commercial clutter that clogs the arteries of broadcast and cable television, the UCC ad features an arresting image: a pair of muscle-bound bouncers standing in front of a church and telling some people they can attend while turning others away.

After people of color, a disabled man and a pair of men who might be gay are turned away, the image dissolves to a text statement that: "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we."

Then, as images of diverse couples and families appear on screen, an announcer explains that, "No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you are welcome here."

It is a graceful commercial, which delivers an important message gently yet effectively -- something that cannot be said of most television advertising these days. But viewers of the CBS and NBC television networks won't see it because, in this age of heightened focus on so-called "moral values," quoting Jesus on the issue of inclusion is deemed to be "too controversial."

What was controversial? Apparently, the networks don't like the ad's implication that the Nazarene's welcome to all people might actually include ALL people.

Noting that the image of one woman putting her arm around another was included in the ad, CBS announced, "Because the commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations, and the fact the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the (CBS and UPN) networks."

NBC was similarly concerned that the spot was "controversial." UCC leaders, pastors and congregation members are upset, and rightly so.

"It' seems incredible to me that CBS admits it is refusing to air the commercial because of something the Executive Branch, the Bush administration, is doing," says Dave Moyer, conference minister for the Wisconsin Conference of the UCC. "Since when is it unacceptable to offer a different perspective?"

Moyer says that people of all religious faiths and all ideological perspectives should be concerned that the major networks -- which dominate so much of the discourse in America -- are seeking to narrow the dialogue.

The Rev. Curt Anderson, the pastor of the First United Church of Christ in Madison, Wisconsin, says that people of good will should also be concerned about the message being sent to gays and lesbians in the aftermath of an election season that saw them targeted by the political right.

"I'm thinking of the LGBT folks in my church who felt so under attack after the election. They are getting hit again," explained the pastor. "This is another way where the culture, the media, makes them invisible. It is incredible that it is controversial for one woman to put her arm around another."

It is also bizarrely hypocritical. After all, the same NBC network that found the UCC ad "too controversial" airs programs such as "Will & Grace" that feature gay and lesbian characters. "We find it disturbing that the networks in question seem to have no problem exploiting gay persons through mindless comedies and titillating dramas, but when it comes to a church's loving welcome to committed gay couples, that's where they draw the line," explained the Rev. Bob Chase, director of the national UCC's communication ministry.

Chase has a point. CBS and NBC, networks that reap enormous profits from the public airwaves, are not serving the public interest. Rather, they are assaulting it by narrowing the dialogue and rejecting a message of inclusion that is sorely needed at this point in the American experiment.

A Touchstone for Self-Reflection

Aside from the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving is the most distinctly American of our national holidays.

As such, if we see it as more than just the day before the Christmas shopping season begins, Thanksgiving offers an opportunity to reflect on the direction of the nation.

The Pilgrims who came ashore at Plymouth Rock were not the first Americans. But their story, and their relatively peaceful interactions with the Indians who welcomed them to the region, form an essential part of the national narrative for many Americans.

It is as a touchstone for self-reflection and self-assessment that this day is most meaningful. Indeed, if we are to have any chance of making America the country it should be, it seems most likely that the process would begin on a day so rich in historical references as Thanksgiving.

This is not a contemporary observation spun out in the aftermath of a particularly disappointing national election. Rather, it is a variation on the theme taken up by Daniel Webster when he delivered one of the most remarkable speeches in the history of American oratory.

Late in the fall of 1820, two hundred years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Webster, then a young political figure who was still rising to prominence, was invited to deliver an oration on the site of their arrival. He used the opportunity not merely to reflect but to engage in the painful process of contrasting historic ideals with contemporary compromises. In addition to physical memorials to the Pilgrims' progress, Webster said, "we would leave here, also, for the generations which are rising up rapidly to fill our places, some proof that we have endeavored to transmit the great inheritance unimpaired; that in our estimate of public principles and private virtue, in our veneration of religion and piety, in our devotion to civil and religions liberty, in our regard for whatever advances human knowledge or improves human happiness, we are not altogether unworthy of our origin."

Noting the communal nature of the Pilgrim experiment, which broke from the feudal structures of the European lands they had fled, Webster warned that America was becoming less equal. And, he added, "The freest government, if it could exist, would not be long acceptable if the tendency of the laws were to create a rapid accumulation of property in few hands, and to render the great mass of the population dependent and penniless."

But Webster did not limit himself to vague economic theory. He spoke specifically of America's original sin: the practice of slavery.

"I deem it my duty on this occasion to suggest, that the land is not yet wholly free from the contamination of a traffic, at which every feeling of humanity must for ever revolt -- I mean the African slave-trade. Neither public sentiment, nor the law, has hitherto been able entirely to put an end to his odious and abominable trade," said Webster, who spoke at a time when most politicians refused to address the question of human bondage.

"At the moment when God in his mercy has blessed the Christian world with a universal peace, there is reason to fear, that, to the disgrace of the Christian name and character, new efforts are making for the extension of this trade by subjects and citizens of Christian states, in whose hearts there dwell no sentiments of humanity or of justice, and over whom neither the fear of God nor the fear of man exercises a control. In the sight of our law, the African slave-trader is a pirate and a felon; and in the sight of Heaven, an offender beyond the ordinary depth of human guilt."

Those were radical words for the times. And to utter them in the midst of a discussion of America's founding and heritage was considered inappropriate by the guardians of political propriety. But Daniel Webster used that day well, just as we should use this day -- to call this country to the higher ground.

Stenographers to Power

The best question asked in the aftermath of the 2004 US election came from a British newspaper, The Daily Mirror, which inquired over a picture of George W. Bush, "How can 59,054,087 be so dumb?

Now, another British newspaper has answered the question. A new marketing campaign for The Weekly Guardian, one of the most respected publications in the world, features images of a dancing Bush and notes that, "Many US citizens think the world backed the war in Iraq. Maybe it's the papers they're reading."

The weekly compendium of articles and analyses of global affairs from Britain's liberal Guardian newspaper has long been regarded as an antidote to government controlled, spun and inept local media. Nelson Mandela, when he was held in South Africa's Pollsmor Prison, referred to the Weekly Guardian as a "window on the wider world."

But is it really appropriate to compare the United States in 2004 with a warped media market like South Africa during apartheid days?

Actually, the comparison may be a bit unfair to South African media in the apartheid era--when many courageous journalists struggled to speak truth to power.

No serious observer of the current circumstance in the United States would suggest that our major media serves the cause of democracy. Years of consolidation and bottom-line pressures have forced even once responsible media to allow entertainment and commercial values to supersede civic and democratic values when making news decisions. And the determination to color within the lines of official spin is such that even the supposed pinnacles of the profession--the New York Times, the Washington Post and CBS News' 60 Minutes--have been forced to acknowledge that they got the story of the rush to war with Iraq wrong.

There can be apologies. But there cannot be excuses because, of course, media in the rest of the world got that story right.

And there are consequences when major media blows big stories. As the Weekly Guardian's new marketing campaign suggests, a lot of Americans voted for George W. Bush on November 2 on the basis of wrong assumptions.

According to a survey conducted during the fall campaign season by the Program on International Policy Attitudes--a joint initiative of the Center on Policy Attitudes and the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs--a lot of what Americans know is wrong.

Despite the fact that surveys by the Gallup organization and other polling firms have repeatedly confirmed that the vast majority of citizens of other countries opposed the war in Iraq, the PIPA survey found that only 31 percent of Bush supporters recognized that the majority of people in the world opposed the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq.

Amazingly, according to the PIPA poll, 57 percent of Bush supporters assumed that the majority of people in the world would favor Bush's reelection, while only 33 percent assumed that global views regarding Bush were evenly divided. Only 9 percent of Bush backers correctly assumed that Kerry was the world's choice.

That wasn't the end of the misperception.

"Even after the final report of Charles Duelfer to Congress saying that Iraq did not have a significant WMD program, 72 percent of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq had actual WMD (47 percent) or a major program for developing them (25 percent)," explained the summary of PIPA's polling. "Fifty-six percent assume that most experts believe Iraq had actual WMD and 57 percent also assume, incorrectly, that Duelfer concluded Iraq had at least a major WMD program."

"Similarly," the pollsters found, "75 percent of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, and 63 percent believe that clear evidence of this support has been found. Sixty percent of Bush supporters assume that this is also the conclusion of most experts, and 55 percent assume, incorrectly, that this was the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission."

PIPA analysts suggest that the "tendency of Bush supporters to ignore dissonant information" offers some explanation for these numbers. And there is something to that. After all, Kerry backers displayed a far sounder sense of reality in PIPA surveys.

But unless we want to assume that close to 60 million Americans look at the world only through Bush-colored glasses, there has to be some acceptance of the fact that good citizens who consume American media come away with dramatic misconceptions about the most vital issues of the day.

Sure, Fox warps facts intentionally. But what about CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, USA Today, the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as most local media across the country? They may strive to be more accurate than Fox or talk-radio personalities such as Rush Limbaugh. But they still fed the American people an inaccurate picture when they allowed the Bush team to peddle lies about Iraq and other issues without aggressively and consistently challenging those misstatements of fact.

America has many great journalists. And there are still good newspapers, magazines and broadcast programs. But, taken as a whole, US media--with its obsessive focus on John Kerry's Vietnam record, its neglect of fundamental economic and environmental issues and its stenographic repetition of even the most absurd claims by the president and vice president--warped the debate in 2004.

Some of those 59,054,087 Bush voters may have been dumb.

But a far better explanation for the election result is summed up by the Weekly Guardian's observation that, "Maybe it's the papers they're reading."

A Politician, Not a Diplomat

Two weeks before the 2004 presidential election, the Bush administration's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, made a solemn pronouncement about her desire to remain outside the political fight between Democrat John Kerry and the man who this week appointed her to serve as Secretary of State. "I think it's important that we not campaign," Rice said of national security aides. She emphasized that this was a particular concern because "we are in a time of war."

Rice made her comments during an interview with the political editor of KDKA, a Pittsburgh-based television powerhouse with a reach capable of taking her words into the homes of millions of voters in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

Then, in a display of her nonpolitical approach, Rice proceeded to rip into Kerry's charge that the administration had botched the search for Osama bin Laden. Kerry's assertion "is just not true," raged Rice, before again refuting the notion that she was campaigning for Bush.

The next day, she flew to Cleveland, Ohio, the largest city in the most hotly contested of all the battleground states and trashed Kerry once more.

Two days later, she was in south Florida, one of the most hotly contested regions of another battleground state where again she dumped on Kerry's strategies for defending the United States before declaring, "The global war on terror calls us, as President Bush immediately understood, to marshall all the elements of our national power to beat terror and the ideology of hatred that protects (terrorists) and recruits others to their ranks."

During the months of September and October of 2001, Rice made no public appearances outside Washington, during September and October of 2002, she made one New York appearance, during September and October of 2003, she appeared in New York and Chicago. But as the November 2 election approached, Rice suddenly discovered the joys of Pittsburgh and Detroit. With the man who she once mistakenly referred to as "my husband" locked in a tough reelection campaign, Rice appeared during the fall of 2004 at least one time each in the battleground states of Oregon, Washington, North Carolina, Michigan and Florida, and at least twice in the battleground states of Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Rice's travels were, for the most part, paid for by the taxpayers. And her aides insisted throughout the campaign season that, in the words of James Wilkinson, a deputy national security advisor, "Dr. Rice has continued the nonpolitical tradition of her post."

That pronouncement was so laughable, however, that the Washington Post, which did the ablest job of tracking Rice's travels in the months prior to the election, observed, "The frequency and location of her speeches differ sharply from those before this election year -- and appear to break with the long-standing precedent that the national security adviser try to avoid overt involvement in the presidential campaign. Her predecessors generally restricted themselves to an occasional speech, often in Washington, but (by late October) Rice will have made nine outside Washington since Labor Day."

The woman who claimed she could not appear before the bipartisan committee investigating the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington because it would break precedents set by past national security advisers had no qualms about breaking past precedents when it came to using her position to advance her favorite politician's interests. "I'm afraid this represents, at least in my book, excessive politicization of an office which is unusually sensitive," Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Carter administration's national security, said of Rice's pre-election travels. Brzezinski confirmed the Post's observation that past national security advisers had "viewed the job as not a highly political one."

Obviously, Rice had a different view. Her political campaigning was so blatant and so extensive that the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, U.S. Representative John Conyers, D-Michigan, sought a special counsel investigation of whether Rice had violated the Hatch Act's provisions against campaigning by federal employees who are on the job. "(Any) political activity on the part of the national security adviser would undermine the trust bestowed on such a non-partisan post," argued Conyers in a letter requesting the inquiry.

Of course, there was never any question that Rice was engaging in political activity. The only question was: For who? To be sure, her busy schedule in the battleground states -- which supplemented speeches with high-profile interviews with local television stations and newspapers -- helped Bush. But it also helped Rice.

After Rice appeared in that city in September, the Seattle Times newspaper pointed out that, "Rice sounded at times like a candidate." In a sense, she was. Prior to the election, Washington was abuzz with speculation about the all-but-certain departure of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the closest thing the administration had to an independent man of government -- as opposed to the programmed politicos who peopled most major posts in the Bush White House. Rice, who began campaigning for the Secretary of State post before the 2000 election, did not want there to be any doubt on the part of Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney, the man who runs foreign policy for the administration, that she would be a more loyal and dramatically more politicized player than Powell.

And so she shall be.

Rice, whose many excuses for refusing to appear before the 9/11 Commission included a claim that she was too wrapped up in the serious work of analyzing potential threats to the nation, has always been able to find time for political work on behalf of the Bush-Cheney team -- and on behalf of her own ambition. In March, at the same time that she was stonewalling the 9/11 Commission, Rice found time to deliver an extended briefing to top executives from television networks, magazines, newspapers and other media properties owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. conglomerate. Even as Spain's new prime minister was talking about withdrawing his country's troops from Iraq, and Poland's president was suggesting that he might do the same, Rice blocked out time to speak via satellite to the Murdoch lieutenants gathered at the posh Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Cancun, Mexico.

Certainly, her appearance helped to cement the relationship between the Bush administration and Murdoch's media empire, which includes the Fox broadcast and cable networks, the relentlessly pro-Bush New York Post and the neoconservative Weekly Standard magazine. But it also helped to position Rice as a Bush administration player who, unlike Colin Powell, recognized the need to care for friendly media.

Where Bush, Cheney and the neoconservative readers and advisers who have populated key positions inside the administration and at its edges never trusted Powell, they know they can count on Rice. Just as she politicized the national security adviser to an extent never before seen, she will politicize the State Department. Any pretense of independence or pragmatism will be discarded as quickly as was the tradition of keeping the national security adviser out of politics.

With Powell, its feeble defender, on the way out of the State Department, the last small voices of dissent within the foreign policy bureaucracy will begin to fall silent. If Rice is confirmed, as seems certain considering the partisan divide in the Senate, the Department of State where Thomas Jefferson, William Jennings Bryan and George Marshall once presided, will be little more than an arm of the White House political operation. And the Secretary of State, who has already proven herself to be more interested in campaigning than in defending the best interests of the nation or its security, will not be a diplomat. She will be a politician, nothing more and, certainly, nothing less.


John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, "This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president." Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, "The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton's no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting)."

Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and by clicking here.


Frist's Fury Over Filibusters

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the health insurance industry heir who went into politics for the purpose of protecting his family's financial interests against even the most tepid federal regulation, is not exactly an expert on the workings of Congress.

But that has not stopped the Tennessee Republican from launching an attack on one of the Senate's most time-honored traditions.

Speaking to the Federalist Society, the conservative legal affairs group that has become the nation's premier proponent of judicial activism, Frist lashed out against Democrats who threaten to use filibusters to block corrupt, incompetent or ideologically extreme nominees for federal judgeships.

"One way or another, the filibuster of judicial nominations must end," griped Frist, whose new cause offers another reminder that little changed when he replaced former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, the segregationist-praising Republican from Mississippi.

"This filibuster is nothing less than a formula for tyranny by the minority," argued Frist, who claimed that if Democrats succeed in using procedural tactics to block some of President Bush's nominees, "they will have effectively seized from the president the power to appoint judges."

Frist's rhetoric is dramatically overblown. Senate Democrats have cleared the way for the approval of the overwhelming majority of Bush's judicial picks; they have used the threat of a filibuster to block only the nominations of 10 particularly unfit nominees for federal appeals court positions.

There is no "tyranny of the minority." In fact, if Senate Democrats were to make real on the threat of a filibuster -- which halts Senate action as one senator or a group of senators engage in an extended discussion of a nomination or issue being considered by the chamber -- it would only be because there is no other way to get Senate Republicans and the White House to consult with the opposition party in the manner that the nation's founders intended.

Frist delivered his bombastic remarks to the Federalist Society in an effort to try to scare Senate Democrats before the new session of Congress begins. If the Democrats launch a filibuster, or even threaten to employ the tactic in order to slow down the process of making judicial nominations, Frist signaled that GOP leaders in the Senate might implement what is refered to as "the nuclear option."

When he employed the phrase "one way or another, the filibuster of judicial nominations must end," the majority leader indicated a willingness to sanction an effort by some Republicans to circumvent Senate rules and declare filibusters against executive nominations to be unconstitutional. This dubious strategy is troubling even to many Republicans, who worry that rewriting Senate procedures in order to advance the Bush administration's court-packing agenda could come back to haunt the GOP when a future Senate is controlled by the Democrats.

For all of Frist's bluster, Senate Republicans wont have the guts to bar filibusters if Americans express support for the use of the tactic as it was intended -- to prevent the Senate majority from doing something that would harm the country.

Frist's attempt to portray the tactic of filibustering -- or threatening to filibuster -- as a new and dangerous phenomenon is a lie. This tool has been employed repeatedly over the past two centuries -- most famously in recent years when former President Lyndon Johnson's nomination of Abe Fortas to serve as the chief justice of the US Supreme Court was blocked in 1968.

The filibuster was a particularly popular tool of progressive senators at the dawn of the last century. Former US Senators Robert M. La Follette, R-Wisconsin, George Norris, R-Nebraska, and their allies used it in the 1910s and 1920s to battle against the takeover of the Senate by crony capitalists, military adventurers and war profiteers.

The Senate progressives who would go on to be remembered as some of that chamber's greatest members were passionate defenders of the filibuster. Burton K. Wheeler, the Democratic senator from Montana who was La Follette's running mate on a progressive independent ticket in the 1924 presidential campaign, wrote about the subject in his classic autobiography Yankee from the West. Wheeler recalled that La Follette's most passionate advice to him as a young senator was to always support the right of fellow senators to filibuster.

"Never vote for cloture," said La Follette, referring to the procedure used to counter filibusters by getting 60 senators to vote to force an end to debate. Even on an issue where a progressive senator disagreed with colleagues who were filibustering, La Follette argued that it was always wrong to stifle debate on important issues and nominations.

La Follette was right. The filibuster is one of the few tools that a minority party can use to counter the worst excesses of an out-of-control majority party. The practice should be defended -- and, yes, it should be used even in the face of Bill Frist's threats.

Danger for Dems: A Moral Misstep

Democrats who place too much credence in those exit polls that suggest that American politics is being reshaped by voters who are charged up about "Moral Values"--as defined by social conservative opposition to same-sex marriages, the right to choose and out-of-control Super Bowl halftime shows--run the risk of making a mistake that could put them not on the wrong side of one election but, rather, on the wrong side of history.

After every election, the insta-pundits seek to explain the results with a one-size-fits-all analysis that often becomes the accepted wisdom of the political seasons that follow. The flavor of this fall moment is the suggestion that voters are dramatically more interested in "Moral Values" than in the past. This theory is based on the fact that, when exit pollsters asked voters which of seven issues was most important to them, 22 percent chose "Moral Values." And 79 percent of voters who picked "Moral Values" backed President Bush. Hence the theory that a silent tide of "Moral-Values" voters--as opposed to shameless exploitation of the war on terror by the Bush team, vapid media coverage of the campaign and major missteps by the Democrats--tipped the election to the president.

"Moral values... propelled Bush," announced MSNBC. "Contest turned on voters' values, exit polls show," announced the Indianapolis Star. "Values voters seek their reward in policy," read a Knight-Ridder News Service headline. "'God gap' may force Dems to search souls," declared the Arizona Republic.

This would all be quite compelling if there had been a genuine surge in "MoralValues" voting. In fact, socially-conservative voters have been citing some variation on "Moral Values" as their defining issue for years. For instance, in 1996 when then-President Bill Clinton was reelected by popular vote and Electoral College margins far wider than those accorded President Bush this year, 17 percent of voters selected "Family Values" as their top issue.

In 2000, exit polls did not offer a "Family Values" or "Moral Values" option on the issues list. But a 2000 survey for Emily's List found that 26 percent of women who backed Republicans that year ranked "Moral Values" as their top issue, while 20 percent of men did--roughly the same rate as this year.

While the political and media chattering classes are quite absorbed with the fact that those who selected "Moral Values" as a top issue this year voted by a roughly 4-1 margin for Bush, they seemed to miss the fact that respondents who selected "Economy/Jobs" as their most important issue voted 80-18 against Bush.

Twenty-two percent of the voters included in the exit-poll sample selected "Moral Values" as their top issue while 20 percent selected "Economy/Jobs." In a poll such as this one, with a one-percent margin of error up or down, there is no meaningful difference between the portion of the American public that selected "Moral Values" and the portion that selected "Economy/Jobs." So why haven't there been at least a few headlines suggesting that: "Economy/Jobs... propelled Kerry to near Electoral College tie with incumbent president" or "'Jobs gap' may force Republicans to search souls."

And what about a new issue on the list: Iraq? Fifteen percent of those surveyed chose Iraq as their top issue--far more than selected "Education," "Health Care" or the once-significant "Taxes." Among the roughly one in seven voters who picked "Iraq" as their top issue, the split was 73-26 for Kerry. Doesn't it seem logical, since Iraq has been such a high-profile issue, that a few pundits might have noted that, among Americans who are most charged up about the war, Kerry was a 3-1 favorite.

The point here is not to suggest that Democrats, Republicans or any other political players should neglect the fact that roughly one in five voters cite "Moral Values" as their top election issue. Rather, the point that needs making is that this is nothing new. And if Democrats seek to downplay their support for gay rights and other socially progressive stances, they won't just be wasting their time. They will be alienating a substantial portion of their base-- something the Republicans would never do--and they will be putting themselves on the wrong side of historical trends that will ultimately make support for gay rights the winning stance.

It is important to go beyond the post-election spin to examine just exactly who these "Moral Values" voters are. Of the four regions of the country, "Moral Values" ranked highest on the issue list in the south, where voters who cited it as their top concern broke 89-10 for Bush. Yet, aside from Florida--the one state in the region where "Moral Values" ranked second on the issue list--there were no major battleground states in the south.

If respondents from southern states where Democrats are unlikely to seriously compete in the near future are removed from the pool of those surveyed, "Moral Values" becomes a far less significant factor in deciding the direction of the election.

In the East, for instance, "Moral Values" ranked fourth on the list of top issues--behind "Iraq," "Economy/Jobs" and "Terrorism." In the West, "moral values" was in a statistical tie with "Iraq" as the top issue. In the critical Midwestern battleground state of Ohio, "Economy/Jobs" ranked above "Moral Values." The same was true in Michigan, and Pennsylvania--where "Moral Values" ranked fourth behind "Economy/Jobs," "Iraq" and "Terrorism."

Let's be clear, if the Democratic Party wants to get on the good side of the crowd that always ranks "Moral Values" or some variation on that term as its top issue, that will require adjusting Democratic positions to be more in tune with those of the old Confederacy. (It is notable that every state that fought to defend the institution of slavery in the Civil War voted for Bush, while the vast majority of states that sided in that distant struggle with the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, voted for Kerry.)

And what are the moral values of the old Confederacy? Well, there is no question that gays rights stances are a tough sell in places like Mississippi and Alabama. But last week in Alabama, voters appear to have narrowly turned down a proposal to remove "Jim Crow" segregationist language from their state Constitution. So it's not just gay rights that America's hotbed of "Moral Values" voting rejects.

Before Democrats allow a cursory reading of the exit polls to send them on a long march away from socially progressive stances, they might want to ask themselves: Exactly how far backward do they want to go? Just back to the point where they abandon a commitment to equal justice for gays and lesbians? Or do they really want to be in line with voters who support keeping "separate-but-equal" language in the law books?

Democrats can spend the next four years trying to make themselves acceptable to the social-conservative voters who, election after election, cite "Moral Values" as their top issue. But it won't win them Alabama. And it almost certainly will turn off voters in other regions of the country---particularly under-30 voters who consistently support gay rights in exit polls and other surveys, and who are likely to carry that stance with them as they become more significant players in the political process.

The bottom line is this: Democrats can either waste four years developing a doomed outreach to voters for whom "Moral Values" means denying rights to others, or they can work on getting more in tune with the vast majority of voters who rank other issues as their top priorities.

If Democrats fight for Alabama, they will lose. If they fight for America, they at least have a chance of winning.

The Missing Mandate

A day after the 2004 presidential voting was done, when it was finally possible to declare victory, Vice President Dick Cheney introduced a reelected President George W. Bush to the United States. But Cheney did not merely claim the win. He announced that, "President Bush ran forthrightly on a clear agenda for this nation's future, and the nation responded by giving him a mandate."


Even by the accepted standards of vice presidential hyperbole – which have been dramatically expanded during the Cheney interregnum – that's a stretch. But it is a stretch that right-wing talk radio and cable television have been quick to make, with The Weekly Standard's invariably over-the-top Bill Kristol declaring Bush's win to be "an even larger and clearer mandate than those won in the landslide reelection campaigns of Nixon in 1972, Reagan in 1984, and Clinton in 1996."

Kristol was, of course, wrong. There was no sense in which Bush's mandate was even comparable with those of Nixon, Reagan or Clinton. But if Kristol's assessement was ridiculously wrong, so too were the reviews of the result presented by much of the so-called "mainstream" media. Doyle McManus and Janet Hook of The Los Angeles Times have declared that "Bush can claim a solid mandate." In The New York Times, David Sanger went event further, claiming that, "Mr. Bush no longer has to pretend that he possesses a clear electoral mandate. Because for the first time in his presidency, he can argue that he has the real thing."

Truth-challenged statements are to be expected from Cheney, who continues to peddle the now entirely-discredited theory that Iraq posed a threat that necessitated the invasion and occupation of that country, and who still stands by the fiddled figures that were used to justify the administration's fiscally fraudulent overhaul of Medicare. But no one else, not even a Bill Kristol or a David Sanger, has any excuse for calling what Bush won on Tuesday a mandate.

In the language of American politics, the term "mandate" refers to a sweeping electoral win that confers upon the victor the authority not merely to govern but to radically alter the course of the country. Few presidents get them. And George W. Bush is not one of those presidents.

Let's get clear regarding what Bush got out of Tuesday's election:

* He won a popular vote majority that currently stands at about 3.5 million. If that number holds, he'll end up with a roughly 51-48 margin over Democrat John Kerry.

* He won an electoral vote majority of 286-252 (assuming that reviews of ballots in Ohio, Iowa and New Mexico leave those states in his column).

* He will govern with both a House and Senate controlled by his party. But in both chambers moderate elements of the Republican party could combine with Democrats to slow his agenda.

By comparison with most presidents elected in the past century, that is anything but a mandate.

Consider this: In the presidential elections from 1904 up until this year, the victors in 21 of 25 contests won by wider percentage of the popular vote than that achieved by Bush on Tuesday. During that same 100 year period, the victors in 23 of 25 presidential elections won by wider margins in the Electoral College than did Bush – the only narrower wins were those of Bush in the disputed election of 2000 and Woodrow Wilson in 1916.

Bill Clinton, George Herbert Walker Bush, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt (in all four of his campaigns), Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge, Warren Harding, Woodrow Wilson (in 1912), William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt all won elections by significantly wider popular vote AND electoral vote margins than did Bush in 2004.

So which president's "mandate" is most comparable to that earned this year by Bush? Jimmy Carter's in 1976. Carter won the Electoral College by a slightly larger margin than Bush will this year, 297-240, while his popular vote margin was an almost identical 51-48. Carter had far more friendly majorities in the House and Senate. But, far from accepting that he had any kind of mandate, Republicans moved immediately – and with notable success – to build bipartisan coalitions in opposition to Carter initiatives such as the Panama Canal Treaty. Outside of Congress, Ronald Reagan dismissed the notion that Carter had any kind of mandate, and traveled the country organizing opposition to the new president's policies.

History came to see Carter as an embattled president, rather than a man with a mandate. Today, the University of Virginia's Miller Center on Public Affairs, one of the most respected centers of scholarship on the American presidency, says this in its review of the 1976 results: "Carter squeaked out a narrow victory."

That, rather than the inflated claims of Dick Cheney and William Kristol, is an accurate description of George W. Bush's victory this year. There is no mandate to be found. The president squeaked out a narrow victory – nothing more. And his critics would be wise to grant him precisely the same amount of slack that Ronald Reagan and the Republicans granted Jimmy Carter.


John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, "This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president." Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, "The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton's no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting)."

Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and by clicking here.


Rove's Race

George W. Bush may have secured the presidency this week. But the real winner was Karl Rove.

The White House political czar has solidified his position as the nation's campaigner-in-chief. Republicans love him, Democrats fear him, and everyone now agrees that Rove is the political genius of the age.

So, let's listen to Rove.

In the epilogue of Bob Woodward's book, Plan of Attack, the author writes about how Rove saw the presidential race in early February, 2004.

Noting that Rove believed the war in Iraq was turning into "a potential negative" for the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign, Woodward wrote, "Previously, Rove had claimed he was salivating at the prospect that the Democrats would nominate former Vermont Governor Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential race. But Dean had imploded and Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, had won 12 of the first 14 Democratic primary contests and it looked like he was headed for the nomination."

What did Rove have to say about this development? "'The good news for us is that Dean is not the nominee,' Rove now argued to an associate in his second floor West Wing office. Dean's unconditional opposition to the Iraq War could have been potent in a face-off with Bush. 'One of Dean's strengths though was he could say, I'm not part of that crowd down there.' But Kerry was very much a part of the Washington crowd and he had voted in favor of the resolution for war. Rove got out his two-inch-think loose-leaf binder titled 'Bring It On.' It consisted of research into Kerry's 19-year record in the Senate. Most relevant were pages 9-20 of the section on Iraq."

Woodward explained that, "Rove believed they had Kerry pretty cold on voting to give the president a green light for war and then backing off when he didn't like the aftermath or saw a political opportunity. Whatever the case, Rove sounded as if he believed they could inoculate the president on the Iraq War in a campaign with Kerry."

"Rove," Woodward observed, "was gleeful."

Ten months later, as the returns rolled in on Tuesday night, Rove's glee seemed well placed.

After every imaginable revelation about the missteps, misdeeds and lies that the Bush administration used to steer the country into the Iraq misadventure, and after all the news about the quagmire it had become, America effectively said to George W. Bush: We trust you to manage the mess more than we trust John Kerry.

This is the most painful reality of the fall campaign of 2004: For all the talk about Iraq, the debate about the U.S. occupation of that country never really took hold.

Kerry tried to offer himself up as a clear alternative to Bush, and from a stylistic standpoint he succeeded. But when the debate got down to the practical question of when American troops would be out of harm's way -- and when the Iraqis will really be running things in their own country -- about all Kerry had to offer was a vague sooner-rather-than-later promise that sounded a bit too much like the "secret plan" to get U.S. troops out of Vietnam that Richard Nixon peddled in 1968.

It is a stretch to suggest that Howard Dean would necessarily have been a better foe for Bush than Kerry. Dean had enough baggage to fill several of those loose-leaf folders on Rove's desk.

But, at a fundamental level, Rove was right. A Democratic challenger who could have distanced him-or herself from the use-of-force resolution and Bush's plan of attack would have been, as Woodward suggests, "potent in a face-off with Bush."

To be sure, Bush lost the actual debates. But the results of the election suggest that he did not loose the broader debate about the war. Hindsight is always 20-20, but it is worth noting that a lot of progressives rejected Kerry's candidacy during the primary season because they feared that -- in light of his vote on the use-of-force resolution -- he could not hold Bush fully accountable for the rush to war that has now cost so many American and Iraqi lives. They, like Karl Rove, were proven right on Tuesday.

Syndicate content