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After the U.S. House of Representatives voted by one vote last December to grant President Bush Fast Track authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas, the White House was convinced that the issue was settled. So too were many of activists who had poured their time and energy into opposing Fast Track.
Because they are much more likely to feel the brunt of grassroots lobbying at the district level, House members have since the early 1990s been more dubious about trade deals than members of the Senate. So when the House buckled under intense rally-round-the-flag pressure from the White House in December, it appeared to many Washington observers that Bush would have what Bill Clinton did not: free reign to negotiate away workers rights, family-farm protections, environmental regulations and basic democratic principles in order to create a corporation-friendly free trade zone encompassing most of the entire western Hemisphere.
But appearances were deceiving. Fast Track ended up on the slow track in a Senate controlled by Democrats who were in no rush to do Bush any major favors. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, and Senate Finance Committee chair Max Baucus, D-Montana, generally side with Wall Street against Main Street on trade issues. But they resisted White House pressure for quick action on the issue just long enough to allow critics of corporate-dictated free trade schemes to raise serious objections to letting Bush negotiate a voluminous FTAA arrangement and then force the Congress to accept or reject the deal in a simple up-or-down vote.
Even Daschle and Baucus were surprised this week when the appeal of those objections became evident. By a voice vote Tuesday, the Senate approved a major amendment to the Fast Track resolution that the Bush administration had warned could earn a presidential veto.
The amendment, written by Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton and Idaho Republican Larry Craig, was described by its sponsors as a move to preserve the right of American businesses, workers, and farmers to challenge unfair and illegal trade practices that threaten their livelihoods and their ability to enjoy the benefits of free and fair trade. It does this by creating an exception to the bar on congressional changes to trade agreements contained in the expedited Trade Promotion Authority ratification procedure that -- despite efforts by the Bush administration to change the name -- is still broadly described as "Fast Track."
Under the Dayton-Craig exception, senators would be allowed to strike any part of an FTAA pact that changes U.S. "trade remedy" rules. Often referred to as "anti-dumping laws," trade remedy rules allow the U.S. government to protect U.S.-based producers against unfair competition from foreign corporations that "dump" goods on the U.S. market at below the price of production. The Bush administration angered many senators when, after more than 60 senators signed a letter opposing the surrender of such protections, United States Trade Representative Robert Zoellick volunteered to do just that at last year's World Trade Organization ministerial in Qatar.
This week, Zoellick pulled out all the stops to kill the Dayton-Craig amendment. In addition to lobbying Congress, he organized a press briefing at which he and other free-trade advocates said the amendment would undermine the ability of the administration to reach meaningful trade agreements using the Fast Track authority. "You can't be for this amendment and for free trade," squealed Zoellick.
The problem for Zoellick is that he is no longer a trusted figure in the Senate. After volunteering in Qatar that he was willing to negotiate away protections for U.S. industrial workers and farmers, even Republican senators are wary of entrusting the Enron advisor with the authority to negotiate a trade agreement that would include every western Hemisphere country except Cuba and cover an area stretching from the Tundra to Tierra del Fuego.
Conscious of the credibility gap Zoellick had opened, the administration pulled in the second string -- Commerce Secretary Donald Evans and Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman joined Zoellick in dispatching threatening to recommend that President Bush veto Fast Track legislation if it includes the Dayton-Craig amendment. "If the Senate declares trade laws 'off-limits' for negotiations, the United States will not be able to press other countries to bring their trade laws up to U.S. standards," the Bush aides warned. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer dutifully declared that the president might indeed refuse to sign a trade bill that actually directed Zoellick not to negotiate away protections for U.S. workers and farmers.
"It essentially emasculates trade promotion authority and renders all of our work useless," grumbled Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, a group that -- despite its name -- promotes the interests of multinational corporations first and U.S. manufacturers second.
Senators were not swayed by any of the threats or warnings. Arguing against the administration's demand that it be given complete control over the definition of what goes into trade agreements, Dayton replied: "Under our Constitution, we do not permit one person -- no matter who he or she is -- to bargain away our laws. No one, not even the president, has that authority. No one who understands our Constitution should seek that authority."
While that principle was asserted strongly in the debate, it was a more specific distrust for the Bush administration's push to ditch protections for U.S. workers and farmers that brought a number of Republicans with records of voting for free-trade measures into alliance with progressive Democratic critics of corporate-dictated trade policies. The odd coalition held together when administration allies in the Senate attempted to kill the Dayton-Craig amendment. That move was thwarted by a 61-38 margin, and the Senate quickly adopted the measure by a voice vote.
The next day, the Senate added two more amendments the administration doesn't like -- one by Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone to require a study of the impact of free trade on labor conditions, and another by North Carolina's John Edwards to provide additional aid for textile communities in the Carolinas that have been ravaged by free trade. These amendments -- along with an earlier one sponsored by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan directing the U.S. Trade Representative to renegotiate portions of the North American Free Trade Agreement that allow corporations to use trade rules to undermine U.S. laws -- mean that the Senate version of Fast Track is likely to be exceptionally unattractive to the White House.
So, will Fast Track now be stabbed to death by George W. Bush's veto pen? Not necessarily.
The Senate is still debating Fast Track, and additional amendments could be added. Next week, the Senate will probably give approval to a version of Fast Track that is substantially different from the one passed by the House. Then a House-Senate Conference committee will try to reconcile the bills. Montana Democrat Baucus, who is all-but-certain to have a place on the conference committee, voted to kill the Dayton-Craig amendment. Baucus can be expected to work with House Republicans to try and craft a new version of Fast Track that significantly weakens or eliminates the Dayton-Craig provision. The version of the bill that comes out of the conference committee will go back to the House and the Senate for new votes.
The key here is that prospect of another House vote. The Bush administration pulled out all the stops last fall to gain a one vote majority in the House for Fast Track. That win for the White House came after Republican representatives from the Carolinas were pressured personally by the president to back the measure. Now that several of those representatives are facing tough reelection fights --in large part because they sided with the administration -- they are unlikely to vote again for Fast Track.
The prospect of a new House vote has coalitions of labor, environmental, religious and human rights groups mobilizing opposition in Washington and around the country. Suddenly, the issue is back in play. And the prospect that Congress might yet thwart the Bush administration's chief initiative on behalf of its corporate contributors seems real enough to merit a major ramping up of activism by the AFL-CIO and other groups.
The first test will be the Senate vote on Fast Track. And while that may be the highest hurdle, some activists are trying to leap it.
On Tuesday, in Burlington, Vermont, local activists occupied the office of U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords, Independent-Vermont, in an effort to convince the senator to abandon his support for Fast Track. They locked themselves down in the office and, after talking with Jeffords by phone, were arrested by local police on trespassing charges.
Referring to Jeffords' decision a year ago to quit the Republican Party and caucus with the Democrats, Vermont organic farmer S'ra DeSantis, one of the activists, said, "It is appalling to me that a so-called 'Independent Senator' who did so much to take power away from the President and the Republicans is now giving back that power for the sake of free trade. If Senator Jeffords votes in favor of Fast Track he will be giving power to the president and big corporations and further undermine democracy in this country. A vote against Fast Track is a vote for democracy, family farmers, environmental protection, and working people."
U.S. Rep. Tom Sawyer, who broke with other industrial-state Democrats to back free trade measures such as NAFTA, suffered a stunning defeat in an Ohio's May 7 Democratic primary. And, despite the best efforts of Sawyer's old friends in the business-funded Democratic Leadership Council to try and explain away the eight-term incumbent's rejection at the hands of home-state voters, the message from Ohio was a blunt signal for Democrats who side with Wall Street against Main Street.
Trade issues have long been views by labor and environmental activists as the canary-in-the-coal mine measures of corporate dominance over Congress. Most, though not all, Republicans back the free-trade agenda pushed by major multinational corporations and Republican and Democratic presidents. Most Democrats oppose that agenda. Since the early 1990s, trade votes in the House of Representatives have tended to be close, however. That has meant that the margins of victory for the corporate trade agenda has often been delivered by a floating pool of Democrats -- including Sawyer -- who have been willing to vote with free-trade Republicans on key issues such as NAFTA, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and normalization of trade relations with China. Most of the free-trade Democrats are associated with the New Democrat Coalition, a DLC-tied House group that was formed in 1997 with Sawyer as a charter member.
Patrick Woodall, research director for Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, says Sawyer's defeat must be read as very bad news for those free-trade Democrats.
"If all you do is hang around at think tanks in Washington, you might think that everyone loves free trade. But, when you get outside Washington, you start running into Americans who have seen factories closed and communities kicked in the teeth by the North American Free Trade Agreement and all these other trade bills," explains Woodall, one of the savviest followers of trade fights in Washington and around the country. "Tom Sawyer's defeat ought to be a wake-up call for Democrats who think they can get away with voting for a free-trade agenda that does not protect workers, farmers and the environment. Tom Sawyer found out on Tuesday that there are consequences."
Of course, there will still be Democrats who don't quite "get it." Even as Thursday's edition of Roll Call, the Capitol Hill-insider publication, carried a Page One headline reading "NAFTA Stance Hurt Sawyer," Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., were cutting a deal to give President Bush Fast Track authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreements that critics describe as "NAFTA on steroids."
But if some top Democrats were having trouble figuring out the politics of trade, Sawyer top aide was no longer suffering under any delusions. The congressman's chief of staff, Dan Lucas, said after his boss lost: "The big issue was NAFTA." And the big loser was the argument that, given a choice, Democrats from blue-collar districts will stick with members of Congress who vote the Wall Street line on trade issues. As Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director Howard Wolfson delicately explained, "(In) some districts in this country a free trade position is not helpful."
Sawyer was not the first Democrat in recent years to discover those consequences. After voting for a previous version of Fast Track, California Rep. Matthew Martinez was defeated in a 2000 primary by labor-backed challenger Hilda Solis. And Rep. Ken Bentsen, a Houston Democrat who voted for the current Fast Track proposal when it came before the House last December, lost a March Democratic primary for an open U.S. Senate seat after his opponent, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, said he would have opposed Fast Track.
But, by any measure, Sawyer's defeat is the most significant so far for a free-trade Democrat in the House.
Since his 1993 vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement, Sawyer had been held up by backers of free trade as living proof that it was safe for Democrats from industrial states to break with organized labor and vote for corporate-friendly trade legislation. Despite lots of griping over his NAFTA vote, Sawyer was reelected several times by voters in a district made up of Akron -- a city where he had served as mayor -- and white-collar Cleveland-area suburbs.
In the redistricting process following the 2000 Census, Sawyer's district lines were altered. He kept much of the Akron area but took in Youngstown and Mahoning Valley towns represented by U.S. Rep. Jim Traficant. After his conviction on 10 felony counts including racketeering and bribery, Traficant decided to skip the Democratic primary and Sawyer was supposed to be safe. By far the biggest name in the race, Sawyer collected a campaign bankroll that drawfed those of his opponents. And he did not hesitate to spend that money freely on slick television commercials that filled the airwaves in the weeks before the primary.
Sawyer and his Democratic challengers agreed on most issues. But trade was the dividing line. And trade mattered -- especially in Youngstown and other hard-hit steel-mill communities up and down the Mahoning Valley. Though Sawyer had voted with labor on some trade issues -- including the December Fast Track test -- he is known in Ohio as the Democrat who backed NAFTA, and for unemployed steelworkers and their families NAFTA invokes the bitterest of memories.
"Sawyer's vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement killed him in the valley, observers agree. Even though Sawyer had a strong pro-labor voting record, that one vote was all that mattered," the Akron Beacon-Journal newspaper observed. "Mahoning Valley voters hate free trade, especially the North American Free Trade Agreement," echoed the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. ``That NAFTA vote (by Sawyer) added fuel to the fire," said William Binning, chairman of the political science department at Youngstown State University.
The fire was stoked by several of Sawyer's lesser-known opponents, who strongly opposed NAFTA. But the line from the pundits held that, even if trade turned out to be an issue, the NAFTA foes would split the labor vote, allowing Sawyer to prevail with ease. As it turned out, one of the challengers, State Sen. Tim Ryan, broke from the pack by wrapping himself in the banner of the labor movement.
Though a number of national unions backed Sawyer because he looked like a winner, Mahoning Valley unions went with Ryan, a 28-year-old Democrat who had once worked for Traficant. And, unlike Democrats who collect campaign checks from labor and then quickly scramble away from their blue-collar backers, Ryan wore his hometown union support as a badge of honor. His homey television commercials featured the song "Swing, Swing, Swing" as the names of unions that had endorsed him flashed across the screen.
Ryan didn't put many commercials on TV, however. The young candidate was outspent 6-1 by Sawyer. And most of the money Ryan did spend went into the sort of grassroots, down-at-the-union-hall campaigning that is rarely seen in American politics these days. One of the Ryan campaigns biggest expenditures was for t-shirts for his supporters. ``He defies the modern campaign,'' Binning says of Ryan.
On election night, Ryan defied expectations. He won 41 percent of the vote to 28 percent for Sawyer. Another 20 percent of the vote went to State Rep.Anthony Latell, who like Ryan identified himself as a strong foe of NAFTA.
Ryan still faces a November contest that against a Republican legislator. In addition, Traficant is running as an independent, along with Warren Davis, a veteran United Auto Workers union official. By week's end, however, there was speculation that Traficant might be in a jail cell and Davis might be out of the race by November -- creating the prospect that Ryan could end up as an easy winner in the overwhelmingly Democratic district.
No matter what happens, however, Tom Sawyer will be leaving Congress. With him should go the assumption that Democratic voters will always forgive and forget free-trade votes of Democratic members of Congress.
Considering the role that Florida's electoral mess played in making him president, and considering his active disinterest in reforming political processes to assure that the Florida fiasco will never be repeated, George W. Bush is not widely regarded as a pioneering proponent of moves to make American democracy more fair and representative.
Yet, an obscure Texas law that then-Governor Bush signed in 1995 is transforming the electoral landscape in Texas for the better. In fact, a recent vote in Amarillo suggests that it is breaking the grip of Bush's allies in the business community that has for so long dominated Texas electioneering.
The reform that Bush inked with little fanfare seven years ago made it easier for local school districts across Texas to create cumulative voting systems.
Traditionally in Texas, school board members were elected using standard winner-take-all, at-large systems where voters are limited to casting one vote for each candidate. The system made it easy for majority racial or ethnic groups in a district to dominate the balloting. Thus, school districts with substantial minority populations continued to be governed by all-white boards.
Under cumulative systems, voters are allowed to cast as many votes as there are seats. They can distribute the votes among various contenders or assign them all to one candidate. This, as Harvard professor Lani Guinier has noted, makes it possible for members of minority groups to focus their voting on electing members of their own communities and bringing diversity to elected boards.
Since 1995, groups seeking to increase minority representation on local school boards in Texas have regularly pressed Voting Rights Act challenges seeking to upset winner-take-all, at-large systems. In a growing number of cases they have, in settling their legal actions, opted for cumulative voting as a vehicle to achieve better balance on boards. At least 57 Texas communities have adopted cumulative voting systems, according to the Maryland-based Center for Voting and Democracy. And there is growing enthusiasm regarding the reform among voting rights activists with the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"Cumulative voting allows minority groups to elect their preferred candidate in an at-large election system," said Nina Perales, staff attorney for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "It does work. If voters understand the system, it works very well."
In Amarillo, where a cumulative voting system was adopted in 1999 in order to settle a Voting Rights Act challenge, the reform does indeed seem to be working very well. From the late 1970s to the late 1990s, no minority candidates were elected to the Amarillo Independent School District board -- despite the fact that close to 30 percent of the voting population, and 40 percent of the school-age population, is Hispanic or African American.
With the May, 2000, local school board election, Amarillo became the largest U.S. jurisdiction currently utilizing cumulative voting. And the system has worked precisely as local, state and national voting rights activists had hoped. In 2000, voters elected an African American and a Latina to the school board. And, last week, in the second Amarillo school board election held under the cumulative voting system, a second Latina candidate was elected -- bringing minority representation on the school board to a record high level.
"The eyes of the minority voting rights community were focused on Amarillo. This election was seen by many as a test of the ability of cumulative voting to work for the minority community," says Joleen Garcia, a Center for Voting and Democracy staffer who works in Texas to promote electoral alternatives. "For those who work for better election systems and fair representation, this was an important victory."
In a five-way race for three school board seats, Janie Rivas was the sole minority candidate. A veteran community activist, Rivas finished second in voting that ousted an Anglo incumbent who was backed by Business In Our Schools (BIOS), a powerful local political group financed as its name suggests by business interests. According to political observers in Amarillo, Rivas was the first school board candidate to be elected in many years without a BIOS endorsement.
Rivas' election means that the Amarillo Independent School District board is now made up of four Anglo members, two Latinas and one black representative.
A stark contrast to the dramatic progress in minority representation on the school board achieved under the cumulative voting system came in elections the same day for the local college board. Despite a big push to elect a Latino candidate, the college board vote under the old winner-take-all, at-large system produced three Anglo winners.
The evidence is mounting that real election reforms make a real difference. So far, however, there is little evidence that George W. Bush wants to make this Texas success story a national model.
"I think the movement is beginning to wake up," Valerie Mullen, an 80-year-old anti-war activist from Vermont, exclaimed as she surveyed the swelling crowd of people protesting against the economic, international and military policies of the Bush Administration.
While activists always like to declare victory when a decent crowd shows up to demonstrate for causes dear to their hearts, Mullen was not alone in expressing a sense of awe at the size of the crowds that showed up in Washington for weekend protests against corporate globalization, a seemingly endless "war against terrorism" and US military aid to Israel.
District of Columbia police officials estimated that 75,000 people from across the country joined four permitted protest marches in Washington Saturday, while San Francisco police estimated that close to 20,000 people took part in what local officials identified as one of the largest peace rallies that city has seen in years. Thousands more joined demonstrations in Seattle, Houston, Boston, Salt Lake City and other communities.
Official estimates are invariably more conservative than those of organizers, but there was a rare level of agreement among organizers and police chiefs that the weekend of diverse activism against US policies abroad had far exceeded expectations. "I'm just floored by the amount of people here today," said Mark Rickling, an organizer with the Mobilization for Global Justice that brought thousands to Washington to protest corporate globalization in general and the spring meeting of World Bank and International Monetary Fund mandarins in particular. Not far away, DC Police Chief Charles Ramsey agreed that the size of the crowds was far greater than had been anticipated.
The size of the protests is notable because they come at a time when most political leaders and media commentators remain cautious about criticizing US policies. Organizers across the country argued that the turnout at marches and demonstrations was evidence that there is far more opposition to US policy among the American people than the relative silence of official Washington would indicate.
"We cannot have peace without justice," the Rev. Robert Jeffrey of Seattle's New Hope Baptist Church told a rally in that city. "That people who are left out should just keep quiet and accept what happens to them, that just won't happen."
The demonstrators who came to Washington sought to deliver many messages. The Mobilization for Global Justice protests against the World Bank, the IMF, corporate globalization and third-world debt are a rite of spring in Washington. The A20 Mobilization to Stop the War at Home and Abroad -- a coalition that included hundreds of groups ranging from the United States Student Association to the American Friends Service Committee, Peace Action, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Amarillo, Tx., Citizen for Just Democracy -- chose the weekend to mount the first large-scale protest in the US against Bush's proposals to dramatically expand the "war on terrorism," and with it an already bloated Pentagon budget. Opponents of US policies in Latin America marched in opposition to "Plan Colombia" aid to that country's military. The messages of the multiple movements came together in banners that read, "Drop debt, not bombs."
A surprise for many organizers in Washington and San Francisco, however, came in the form of the dramatic turnout of Arab Americans and others angered over continued US military aid for Israel at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is ordering attacks on Palestinian communities on the West Bank. The Washington demonstration was described by organizers as the largest show of support for Palestinian rights ever in the nation's Capitol, perhaps in the US.
Referring to US military aid to Israel, demonstrator Amal K. David said, "My beloved country is financing such death and destruction. I am so ashamed."
David, a Palestinian-American, arrived on one of the more than 20 buses that came to Washington from Detroit for the weekend demonstrations. As many as 50 buses came from New York, and large contingents showed up from as far away as Minnesota and Texas. They were joined by a substantial number of Jews – including several dozen Orthodox rabbis from New York – who marched behind banners that read "Not In My Name" and "Jewish Voice for Peace." "We're here as Jews saying that the values of Judaism do not support what Ariel Sharon is doing," said marcher Jacob Hodes.
Arab-Americans and Jews intermingled along the line of march, which eventually merged with anti-war and anti-corporate globalization marches and rallies. Organizers acknowledged that they often did not know where one protest ended and the next began. "There's a great deal of anger at Bush administration policies. Different people are angry about different policies," said Ben Manski, an organizer who was active with the Green Party's efforts to build support for various DC demonstrations. "What's exciting is that a lot of people are recognizing that when we get together we send a loud message."
Would someone in Congress please, please, please propose changing the name of the "farm bill" to the "food bill"?
Maybe if the issue at hand had a more dramatic name the media and the American public would take a serious interest in congressional debates that are in the process of defining not just the quality of the food we eat but the future of our rural communities, the environment that surrounds us, and the type of economy our nation chooses to construct.
This week, Congress is putting the finishing touches on a long-term farm bill that has, for the most part, been developed behind closed doors in such complex and interest-driven negotiations that most Americans are unaware of the issues that are in play. Yet, as the disastrous Freedom to Farm Act of 1996 proved, a bad farm bill can devastate a good nation.
When Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott got together to write a farm bill that favored corporate agribusiness at every turn, they undermined working family farmers so badly that the bill quickly became known as "the Freedom to Fail Bill." And farmers did fail, with several states experiencing the most dramatic loss in the number of family farms since the Great Depression era.
The next multiyear farm bill is now being shaped in high-stakes sessions of a powerful House-Senate Farm Bill Conference Committee. The bill that will eventually be sent to President Bush's desk will be a compromise measure between a House plan that has been more influenced by corporate agribusiness demands and Senate legislation that is somewhat more reflective of the goals of working farmers.
Any compromise is likely to be better than the soon-to-be-scrapped "Freedom to Fail" structure. And that's a good thing. Sympathy for working farmers is a legitimate rationale for backing a redirection of federal agricultural policy priorities. But it is far from the only one.
Americans who have never walked a fence line, planted a seed or milked a cow ought to get engaged with the current debate because the issues that it touches on go far beyond the farm gate.
Farm bill debates are the legislative venue for most discussions on food labeling (so that consumers know where and how their meat, grains, cheeses, fruits, vegetables and drinks are produced), importation of potentially unsafe food products, and regulation of genetic modification of food. Farm bill debates are also the place where Congress entertains questions of controlling corporate monopolies, regulating food-processing industries, and development of rural areas that contain some of the poorest and most racially diverse stretches of America.
"There are all these issues of race, class, corporate power -- not to mention the quality of what we eat and drink -- that are decided in the farm bill debate," Merle Hansen, the Nebraska farmer who is president emeritus of the North American Farm Alliance, once explained to me. "Yet, for the most part, Americans don't know that the debate is going on. People need to recognize that the lobbyists for the agribusiness corporations are the ones who like it this way. The less attention there is, the more they can get away with."
The Senate farm bill includes a number of critical anti-corporate and consumer-protection components that need to be safeguarded. Of particular interest are measures to require country-of-origin labeling on agricultural products and provide for far more serious examination of where and how food is produced; programs to aid sustainable agriculture initiatives; and a section proposed by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., to protect the legal right of farmers to challenge unsound practices being forced upon them by agribusiness corporations with which they contract.
The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture has set up a great Web site (www.sustainableagriculture.net) to help Americans -- even those with no mud on their boots -- leap into the debate. And everyone who eats ought to make the leap because, while they call what is being shaped in Washington a farm bill, this really is the food bill.
"I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go," President Bush told Britain's ITV News as he prepared for the arrival of British Prime Minister Tony Blair Friday for weekend meetings at the presidential ranch in Crawford, Texas. Though recent violence on the West Bank and in Israel has shifted the focus of press attention to what Bush and Blair will have to say about that conflict, the president's blunt remark was a reminder that this meeting of allies was originally organized as a forum to explore how Saddam Hussein's Iraq could be made the next target of an expanding "war on terrorism."
Blair reportedly arrived in Crawford with plans to tell Bush that talk of launching a war on Iraq ought to be put on hold at least until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict calms. The question that remains is whether Blair will give Bush an honest report on British sentiments regarding plans for an eventual attack on Iraq by the U.S. and Britain. If the prime minister does that, the summit will not provide Bush with much in the way of encouragement.
It turns out that Blair, who has been the president's most enthusiastic international ally since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, has been having a very hard time making the case at home for British support of a U.S.-led attack on Iraq.
Indeed, some of the loudest opposition to a Bush-Blair alliance on Iraq is coming from within the prime minister's own Labor party and from the national newspaper that historically has been most supportive of Labor Party initiatives.
Dismissing Blair's sympathy for the American president's military strategies as misguided, the mass-circulation Mirror newspaper has taken to referring to the prime minister as "the president's poodle." "We didn't do so lightly -- but the truth is the prime minister has done nothing but play lapdog to the Washington Red Neck," Mirror editors wrote in an editorial that appeared Friday morning. "Whenever Bush has barked, Mr. Blair has rolled over with his legs in the air. As other European leaders held back from jumping to Bush's demands (on Iraq), Britain under Blair has rushed forward with embarrassing haste."
The Mirror told the poodle to show his teeth in Crawford. "When (Blair) sits down with Bush, he must remember just what sort of man the president is. He's ruthless -- a man who has sent hundreds of convicts to the execution chamber. A president determined to take the war wherever he wants," the newspaper argued. Referring to Bush's enthusiasm for war with Iraq, the newspaper argued, "Mr. Blair must be the voice of reason. He must stand up to Bush and, if needs be, say 'no.'"
Though the U.S. media has given little notice to Blair's homeland insecurities, the story is front-page news in London. "Blair threatened with huge revolt over Iraq stance," read a headline this week in The Independent, a national daily newspaper. "PM faces dissent on Iraq after supportive words for Bush's fighting talk," read a recent headline in The Guardian newspaper. When Dick Cheney arrived in London last month to consult with Blair regarding Iraq, the Mirror headlined its story on the meeting: "An American Warwolf in London."
Polls show that a majority of British voters oppose an attack on Iraq. Anti-war demonstrations have drawn tens of thousands. And British Home Secretary David Blunkett reportedly briefed a meeting of Blair's Cabinet last month on the danger, if the British military joined a U.S. attack on Iraq, that riots could break out in the streets of British cities.
The opposition Conservative Party has generally backed Blair's talk of taking on Iraq, although some Tories wavered when senior British military sources told reporters that, "We are not aware of evidence, intelligence or otherwise, that the Iraqi government or its agencies are passing on weapons of mass destruction to al-Qa'ida. Nor have we seen any credible evidence linking the Iraqi government to the September 11 attacks."
Leaders of the Liberal Democrats, Britain's third party -- which has 53 members of parliament, including a former Labor Party member who recently switched because of his opposition to Britain's role in the bombing of Afghanistan -- are openly critical of Blair for following Bush's "Lone Star nation" line too closely.
Some of the toughest criticism of Blair comes from within the Labor Party. More than 120 of the party's members of parliament have signed a House of Commons motion expressing "deep unease" about any British alliance with the U.S. to attack Iraq. Former Labor Party Cabinet minister Tony Benn, a Blair critic, says, "The objections from parliament are very significant because, of course, the parliamentary party is far more supportive of Blair's position than the grassroots of the party."
The Campaign Group, an organization of Labor parliament members that is a British version of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in the U.S., is urging Britain's 641 local Labor party organizations to pass resolutions opposing British participation in any new military assault on Iraq. Many Campaign Group members have been loud critics of Saddam Hussein, and remain so. But they are objecting now to expanded British involvement in a war against a country that, to their view, does not pose a significant terrorist threat.
"If Britain is trying to be a global policeman on the U.S. scale, the money is going to come from hospitals, schools, pensions and the other necessities of people's lives," explained Alice Mahon, a Labor Party member of parliament. Critics also warn that a massive strike by the U.S. and Britain against Iraq will, in the words of former British Foreign Office minister Tony Lloyd "further polarize and alienate opinion within the Middle East and broader afield."
"The cause of terrorism is not fanatics, extremists, fundamentalists but instability, disempowerment, marginalization and the anger generated by these combined factors," says Labor Member of Parliament Ian Gibson. "If the United States invades Iraq, it will nourish these sentiments in the Middle East."
Are the Labor Party critics of Blair merely a fringe element? In fact, one of the most outspoken foes of an attack on Iraq is International Development Secretary Clare Short, who told reporters she would quit Blair's Cabinet if Britain joined a U.S. strike on Iraq without United Nations backing. Former Culture Minister Chris Smith has been critical of the rush to war. And Tam Dalyell, the longest serving Labor Party member in the parliament, has been a fierce critic of advisors who have pushed Blair to align with the U.S. rather than follow the direction of the United Nations.
When a Blair foreign policy advisor recently proposed that Britain might join U.S. military interventions as part of "a new kind of imperialism," Dalyell declared, ""The Tsarina of Russia was better advised by Rasputin than the prime minister is by this maniac."
In most western democracies, matters of war and peace are treated as serious political issues, and substantial numbers of elected officials are willing to stand and be counted for anti-war positions.
In Great Britain, for instance, almost one-third of the members of Parliament - including 122 members of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party - have openly expressed discomfort with Blair's moves to support a US-led attack on Iraq.
In the United States, matters of war and peace are less well established as political issues; and, for the most part, elected officials are unwilling to stand tough even for the most logical and necessary anti-war positions.
In the face of mounting evidence that the Bush administration is misguided in its approach to Iraq, Middle East tensions, limitless "axis of evil" warfare, the Star Wars national missile defense boondoggle and military spending as it relates to budget priorities, most members of Congress have been satisfied to serve as little more than rubber stamps for wrongheaded presidential policies.
But a handful of members of Congress have been willing to distance themselves from the administration's course. Their courage is documented in the recently released analysis by the Peace Action Education Fund (www.peace-action.org) of congressional voting during the tumultuous year of 2001.
The Peace Action analysts established a high standard. To gain a 100 percent rating, a member of the House had to vote right on eight issues, a member of the Senate had to do so on seven. In both the House and Senate, one of those votes had to be against the Sept. 14 resolutions authorizing the Bush administration to mount what has turned out to be an open-ended military response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Only one member of Congress, California Democrat Barbara Lee, had the courage to cast that vote. And she alone got a 100 percent rating. Lee is quick to argue that a number of other members came close to joining her, and Peace Action Education Fund executive director Kevin Martin accepts the point.
"Perhaps others would have considered alternatives to rushing into an open-ended war had the vote not been scheduled just three days after Sept. 11, when most of the nation was still in shock," explains Martin. "That path was not taken, and the consequences will be with us for years to come."
The "use-of-force" vote was just one of those analyzed. The others involved military spending authorizations, a proposal to shift $593 million from military spending to fighting AIDS in Africa and legislation that allowed law enforcement authorities to investigate threats using approaches civil libertarians identified as unconstitutional.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who cast a lonely vote against Attorney General John Ashcroft's assault on civil liberties, was the only senator to get a "six-out-of-seven-right" rating of 86 percent. The second best Senate rating was that of Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone, who voted right 71 percent of the time. No other member got a passing grade.
In the House, 22 Democratic members received a "seven-out-of-eight-right" rating of 88 percent: Californians Lynn Woolsey, Pete Stark, Mike Honda and Bob Filner; Colorado's Diana DeGette; Georgia's Cynthia McKinney; Illinoisans Jesse Jackson Jr., Danny Davis and Jan Schakowsky; Massachusetts' Jim McGovern, John Tierney and Ed Markey; Minnesota's Jim Oberstar; New Jersey's Donald Payne; New Yorkers Jerry Nadler, Nadia Velazquez and Maurice Hinchey; Ohio's Dennis Kucinich; Oregon's Mike Wu, Earl Blumenauer and Pete DeFazio; and Washington's Jim McDermott. They were joined by Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders.
The best Republican record was that of Texan Ron Paul, a libertarian who has been a leader in opposing military action in Iraq. He got a 75 percent rating, the same as Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin -- the author of a December letter that expressed concern about civilian casualties in Afghanistan and urged the Bush administration to devote more energy to non-military responses to terrorist threats.
Among the worst records posted by Democrats in the Senate and House were those of several prospective presidential candidates. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt mustered only a 38 percent rating, while Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden earned 43 percent ratings. Connecticut's Joe Lieberman and North Carolina's John Edwards scored just 14 percent. And New York's Hillary Clinton registered 0 - a worse rating than Arizona Republican John McCain, another 14 percenter.
Singer Michelle Shocked strapped on her guitar and took the stage for the performance that would finish the first stop on the Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour. Looking out at the faces of several thousand cheering Texans, the woman who has penned hits such as "Anchorage" broke into a huge grin and told the crowd, "We just didn't know what we were going to find when we showed up this morning. We didn't know if you all were going to show up. But I think it's been an unqualified success."
Shocked got no argument from the crowd, or from organizers of what may well be the most unlikely scheme to stir the nation's populist sentiment since someone suggested pulling together a protest outside the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle.
Texas populist Jim Hightower's plan to "put the party back into politics" with a rollicking national tour of speechifying, entertaining, organizing and coalition-building along the lines of the 19th-century Chautauqua gatherings had always been greeted with a measure of skepticism. Hightower's friends and allies mumbled that the Lollapalooza of the Left idea might be a hair too ambitious. Would it really be possible, at a time when conservative President George W. Bush is supposed to be enjoying 80 percent approval ratings, to pack a fairgrounds east of Austin for a day of Bush-bashing, corporation-crunching, plutocrat-poking politics with a punch? Hightower admitted that he worried about whether he would prove right one of the best lines of Oklahoma populist Fred Harris: "You can't have a mass movement without the masses."
But the organizers need not have worried. The masses were ready for this movement.
"This is just what a lot of us have been waiting for -- the call to action," said Cate Read, an airline industry analyst who watched from her Houston office as employees from the nearby Enron building carried their belongings out of the collapsed corporation's headquarters. "People are ready to start making some noise about what's been going on in this country. The media makes it sound like everyone's for everything George W. Bush does and that is just not the case -- not even in Texas."
By the time filmmaker and author Michael Moore arrived at mid-day, to the foot-stomping, fist-pumping and cheers of close to 7,000 rebels against the consensus, this corner of Texas was definitely not Bush country.
"Where are we? In a barn?" Moore yelled over the roar of the crowd that had packed into what was, indeed, the Travis County Exposition Center's horse and hog showbarn. Clearly delighted, the most populist of popular entertainers let rip with an assault on the suggestion that dissent is no longer appropriate in post-September 11 America.
"Let me tell you something about the (president's) 80 percent approval rating..." bellowed the author of the nation's No. 1 best-seller, "Stupid White Men." "It's bullshit" came the yell from a fellow in a cowboy hat. "That's right," responded Moore, "it's bullshit."
Echoing the slogan emblazoned on stickers many at the event wore, Moore declared, "We are the majority in this country." For the last six months, he argued, we've been told 'watch what you say,' 'don't dissent,' 'don't question the leader.' Let me tell you something: There is nothing more American than asking these questions."
If there was a theme for the day, it may well have been that dissent is back in fashion. Hip-hop, Tejano, rhythm & blues and folk performers including MC Overlord, Ruben Ramos, Marcia Ball and Shocked flavored their shows with rebel yells, performance artists played the Enron scandal for laughs, game booths allowed kids to toss a ball and knock down a nuclear missile. Workshops took on everything from radioactive waste to
genetically-modified food, from militarism to racial profiling, from corporate excess to the "selected-not-elected" presidency of a former Austin resident named Bush. Columnist Molly Ivins got people all worked up.
Everyone got into the act, even Doris "Granny D" Haddock, who walked across the country at age 90 to raise the issue of campaign finance reform and who, at 92, is madder than ever about special-interest influence on government. "I have 16 great-grandchildren," she said, to chants of "Go Granny D." "I want them brought up in a democracy, not a fascist state -- which this country is fast becoming."
Between Granny D and Marcia Ball's rhythm and blues show, US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill, delivered the day's most passionate address. "We come to this Chautauqua because Dr. King was right: America has issued a promisory note and it has come back marked insufficient funds," boomed Jackson, recalling the sudden shift in attitudes about federal spending last fall. "On September 10, we were told there was not enough money for Social Security. But on September 12 or thereabouts, there was $40 billion to finda cave man in Afghanistan -- and we haven't found him yet."
To rising applause from an audience that stayed into the fast-cooling Texas night to hear him, Jackson recounted the $95 billion in new military and corporate-welfare spending that has been authorized since the September 11 attacks.
"We come to this Chautuaqua because 53 million children trapped in separate and not equal schools, and 45 million Americans without health insurance, deserve the same (level of) national response that bin Laden got," boomed Jackson, as he called for a restructuring of national priorities that recognizes a need not just for security against attack from abroad but also for security from hunger, illness and neglect at home.
"My friends, I don't know how to make the Democratic party better and I don't know how to make the Republican party better," Jackson concluded, as tour organizers were already preparing for Chautauqua events in Atlanta, Chicago, Pittsburgh and other cities. "So let us move forward from this Chautauqua not to make the parties better but to make the union better and more perfect for all."
Dennis Vegas is an unlikely campaigner against corporate excess.
Even decked out in casual Friday attire, he still looks like what he used to be -- a vice president for marketing of the seventh largest company in the United States.
But here he is in the parking lot of the Texas AFL-CIO headquarters, echoing the call of his new friend Jim Hightower for a grassroots movement to take on the corporate plutocrats.
What gives? Vegas used to work for Enron, the energy trading giant that collapsed in spectacular fashion last fall -- leaving more than 5,000 Texas workers without jobs, health insurance or retirement plans. "I had some time on my hands," says Vegas. "I decided to do something useful with it."
So Vegas took his place Friday beside a giant wood chipper -- billed the "world's largest paper shredder and emblazoned with the words "Enron Democracy Shredder" -- and helped kick off the Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour. The tour is the brainchild of Hightower, whose rabblerousing stint as Texas' elected Commissioner of Agriculture in the 1980s identified him in the eyes of many as the nation's most aggressive progressive.
Set to launch Saturday in the Texas populist's hometown of Austin, the Down-Home Democracy Tour is a cross between teach-in and county fair. The point is to rent a big venue and invite everyone in town to hear speechifying by some of the nation's most outspoken agitators -- Austin headliners included filmmaker and author Michael Moore, columnist Molly Ivins and US Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. -- eat lots of good food and enjoymusic from the likes of Michelle Shocked and Marcia Ball.
Organizer Mike Dolan, a veteran of the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle, says the goal is to "put the party back into politics."
At a kickoff rally outside the AFL-CIO headquarters here, Hightower and his crew explained that they will move a traveling roadshow of radicalism from town to town over the coming months, linking national "stars" up with local activists in order to, first, have a good time and, second, start building bigger, better coalitions for change. Ultimately,Hightower, who regularly writes for The Nation about grassroots organizing, hopes to bridge divisions between labor and environmental groups, family farmers and factory workers, aging veterans of the distant political wars and fresh-from-Seattle anti-corporate campaigners into local coalitions that become part of a cohesive quilt of national activism. The point, he says, is to start "taking power back at the grassroots level so that we can take the democracy back from the plutocracy."
With support from more than 40 national groups ranging from the National Council of Churches to the Ruckus Society and including the Service Employees International Union, United Students Against Sweatshops, ACORN and the Organic Consumers Association, as well as prominent figures such as Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's ice cream fame, US Sen. Paul Wellstone, US Rep. Barbara Lee and political thinker and organizer Joel Rogers, the coalition building seems well on its way. In Austin, dozens of local groups have signed on to support the first "real folks, real fun, real change" gathering at the local fairground where thousands were expected to attend Saturday's event.
Chaotic as the task of pulling together so ambitious an endeavor has been -- volunteers were still working late Friday to turn the hogwashing area at the fairgrounds into a backstage for bands -- the Texas organizing has been given focus in part by the collapse of Enron and a growing disgust even in the business-friendly Lone Star State with corporate excess. The Enron collapse hit Texas hard, and Hightower argues that it has changed the way many people think about issues of corporate power and democracy.
Vegas counts himself in that group. He admits that a year ago he wouldn't have been all that enthusiastic about a "down-home democracy tour. I didn't take projects like this very seriously before. Even though I worked for a big corporation, I didn't understand the issues." Pointing to Hightower and other organizers, Vegas explains, "These people were prophetic. I got a personal lesson about just how prophetic they were."
So Vegas is telling not just out-of-work Enron employees but employees of other companies that they had better start taking seriously the threat posed by corporations so powerful and -- thanks to campaign contributions -- so influential that they think they are above the law. Hailing the logic of the Down-Home Democracy Tour's plan to start in Texas and then take the show on the road to Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania and other states, Vegas says, "The situation that took place with Enron is a wakeup call for workers across the country. Don't think there aren't other corporations doing exactly what Enron did. And don't think we don't need to be organized if we are going to stop them from doing what Enron did to thousands of people.
Last summer, former Illinois state Treasurer Pat Quinn took a 167-mile stroll across the state of Illinois to promote an amendment to the state Constitution that would establish the right of every individual in the state to quality health care.
Quinn, a lawyer by training and rabblerouser by inclination, was accompanied by Dr. Quentin Young, a Chicago physician who has for many years been one of the nation's leading advocates for single-payer health care. Along the route, they were joined by Granny D, the 92-year-old who walked across the U.S. to promote campaign finance reform.
The walk got some publicity for a great cause and helped Quinn and Young shed a few pounds. But it did not attract many Illinois politicians - not even leading liberal Democrats - to the "health care for all" movement Quinn and Young sought to jump-start.
Now, however, it appears that one of the state's leading political figures could be a big backer of the amendment campaign - along with a host of other progressive reforms that mainstream Democrats have tended to shy away from in recent years.
In December, as the filing deadline for state elections approached, Quinn surprised everyone by jumping into the contest for lieutenant governor. Quinn was not exactly a welcome entrant in the Democratic primary. Though he had served a term as treasurer in the early 1990s, he had been out of office for the better part of a decade. Besides, he had a reputation as a maverick, and party leaders openly expressed concern that Quinn would not be an obedient member of the Democratic ticket or of a new Democratic administration.
Quinn's two main opponents in the primary went out of their way to portray themselves as party loyalists who would march "in sync" with the gubernatorial nominee.
"Can Quinn toe party line?" asked a Chicago Sun-Times headline. Quinn did little to calm the fears, declaring that he saw the state's No. 2 job as "a very good office to champion the interests of people who don't have lobbyists and connections." Recalling campaigns he has led to block utility rate hikes, reform the state Legislature, impose tougher ethics regulations and protect consumers, Quinn declared, "I can holler pretty well, and I think that's part of the job description I would give to lieutenant governor."
Predictably, key party and labor endorsements went to the other candidates. So did the campaign contributions, which meant that Quinn's campaign against two better-funded Democrats was long on message but short on cash. When Democrats chose their candidate in Tuesday's primary, however, Quinn was the easy victor.
He won running on a progressive agenda that owed more to William Jennings Bryan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt than Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Promising to use the office as a bully pulpit for economic and ethics reforms, Quinn signaled his sentiments by blistering Republican Gov. George Ryan for seeking to balance the state's budget with cuts in human service programs.
As an alternative, Quinn called for freezing the pay of elected officials and eliminating all tax breaks that benefit large corporations. "George Ryan's budget cuts are unfair, unnecessary and uncaring. Illinois taxpayers should not let Ryan get away with closing down health and education programs for vulnerable citizens who aren't big campaign donors," hollered Quinn.
At a time when conservatives in Washington and governors across the country are talking about balancing budgets on the backs of those who cannot afford to write big campaign checks, Quinn's against-the-odds win illustrates the power of a Democratic message that trades the politics of compromise for a belligerent populism that allows people to believe anew in the promise of health care for all, fair tax policies and government that serves public interests as opposed to special interests.