John Nichols | The Nation

John Nichols

John Nichols

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Check and Balance Cheney's Choice

George W. Bush has chosen a nominee to replace ousted Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. More precisely, the president has rubber-stamped a selection made by Vice President Dick Cheney.

As with the outgoing Cabinet member, the man designated to take O'Neill's place, CSX Chairman John Snow, is a longtime crony of Cheney.

In Snow's case, the tie goes back at least to the mid-1970s, when Snow served as deputy undersecretary of the Transportation Department and administrator of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration under President Gerald Ford, whom Cheney served as chief of staff.

Just as Cheney parlayed a position as secretary of defense in the first Bush's White House into a big-money job at the helm of Halliburton, a defense contractor he had formerly "regulated," Snow parlayed his Transportation Department post into a big-money job with Chessie System (CSX), a transportation conglomerate he used to regulate.

Now Cheney is back in charge and Snow is preparing to step once more through the revolving door - this time to serve as the president's top adviser on tax and fiscal issues. Just as Cheney has used the vice presidency to serve the interests of Halliburton, Snow will be in a position to deliver for CSX and other corporations to which he is tied as a former chairman of the Business Roundtable.

Members of the U.S. Senate, who are charged under the Constitution with the task of determining whether Cabinet nominees meet the standards that should be set for government service, should uphold that responsibility by closely examining Snow's troubling pattern of turning government service to personal and corporate advantage. They should also analyze the even more serious question of whether, as the nation's secretary of the treasury, Snow is capable of serving the best interests of the United States or simply of corporate America.

On the plus side, Snow was a reasonably outspoken critic of the corporate corruption exposed when Enron collapsed in late 2001. "The scandals, the breakdowns, the collapses, the fraud, the misconduct that was so apparent in the Enrons and the Tycos and the Global Crossings has shaken our confidence," Snow told a forum at which he said a failure by corporations to change the way they do business would make it necessary for Congress and federal regulators to step in.

Corporations have not reformed and, so far, Congress has done a haphazard job of pressing them to do so. As part of the confirmation process, Snow ought to be asked by senators to explain what exactly he believes should be done to crack down on continuing corporate crime and bad faith.

While they're at it, senators should ask Snow to discuss his attitudes regarding federal involvement with American industries, since he has sent decidedly mixed signals in this area. A longtime proponent of deregulation, he did not hesitate to accept federal aid that helped CSX. If Snow is one of these CEOs who believe government is a bad player unless it is lining his pockets, the country would be better off without his thumb on the scale that weighs federal business policy.

Finally, Snow should be required to discuss the extent to which his past forays into government "service" might have benefited CSX, and whether his confirmation would lead to further benefits for CSX and other corporations with which he has ties.

Dick Cheney's recruitment of Snow should be viewed skeptically by the Senate. The Bush-Cheney White House has tended too frequently to serve as an outpost of corporate America. With the American economy in a perilous place, we do not need to be "rescued" by someone whose first priority is taking care of himself and his corporate cronies.

Between a Rock and a Hardass

Trent Lott is at the bottom of a deep hole, and he is digging like crazy. Every time the Dixiecrat cheerleader denies his Confederate tendencies, he comes out looking a little more like his hero - Jefferson Davis - in his "oops" days following the Civil War.

Lott's appearance on Black Entertainment Television the other day was so painfully inept that the BET commentators who reviewed the Mississippi senator's pathetic "some of my best friends are ..." performance tried to cut him some slack. He was at least trying to say the right thing, they suggested, even if Lott's attempts to paint himself as a champion of affirmative action were so tortured that none could actually make a case for allowing him to remain as Senate majority leader in the new Congress.

If the commentators were gentle, Lott's fellow Republicans were not.

The knives are being sharpened, and some of the nastiest thugs in Washington are getting ready to hunt Lott down.

After George W. Bush signaled that he would not defend Lott, Oklahoma Sen. Don Nickles took the first swipe at the majority leader by calling for Senate Republicans to vote anew on whether Lott should lead them. Nickles did not declare himself a candidate to replace Lott, but he has long coveted the majority leader position.

The outgoing assistant majority leader, Nickles has always believed he would be a better boss of Senate Republicans than Lott. And there is no question that when they were handing out political smarts, Nickles got a much larger share than Mississippi's gift to the Senate. He is also, by every measure, a more aggressive and partisan conservative than Lott.

Nickles' objection to Lott never had anything to do with the majority leader's segregationist sentiments. They voted together against the 1983 legislation to create a national holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. They voted together against expanding federal hate crimes protections in 2000. They voted together against moves to expand the ability of minorities to use the courts to fight job discrimination. (Indeed, on civil rights issues, Nickles' voting record is generally rated as bad or worse than Lott's. While the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights give both men similarly dismal ratings, the National Hispanic Leadership Coalition's most recent survey gave Lott a 27 percent approval rating, while Nickles scored 0.)

If anything, Nickles is more of a social conservative than Lott, whose pragmatism and willingness to work with Republican moderates such as Maine's Olympia Snowe and Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter has long troubled the fundamentalist right. Richard Viguerie, whose direct-mail fund-raising machine powers much of the right's political activism, says of Nickles: "He's got that fire that Lott seems to have lost."

Nickles champions the religious right agenda in Congress - promoting schemes to display the Ten Commandments in the public schools and backing every effort to limit access to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest. In 1996, he was a leading sponsor of the Defense of Marriage Act and other legislation designed to prevent gay and lesbian couples from receiving the same benefits and legal protections as heterosexual couples.

As insensitive as Lott may be on race issues, Nickles is even more insensitive when it comes to concerns of women and gays and lesbians. In fact, a New York Times analysis of Nickles' record suggested, correctly, that "in many of those battles (on social issues), he found himself to the right of Mr. Lott."

In fairness, these are close calls. The American Conservative Union gives Nickles a lifetime "right voting" rating of 96, to 93 for Lott. But, by a reasonable margin, the John Birch Society identifies Nickles as a senator who is consistently more to their liking than Lott. The latest vote analysis by the Birchers gave Nickles one of the group's highest approval ratings in Congress - 90 percent right wing. Lott could only muster an 80 percent right wing rating.

With the famously tight-lipped Bush administration suddenly leaking criticism of Lott on a daily basis, there is no question that Nickles will succeed in forcing a new leadership vote. And it is getting harder to imagine how Lott will survive. That does not mean that Nickles will grab the top job - a pair of somewhat smoother conservatives, Kentucky's Mitch McConnell and Tennessee's Bill Frist (a White House favorite) are also interested in the position. But if the choice does come down to Lott and Nickles - a rock and a hard-ass - Republicans will have a difficult time making the case that trading a doltish and intolerant Mississippian for a smart and intolerant Oklahoman represents progress.

Gore's Gone, But Will Dems Freshen Up?

Poor Al Gore, he never could get presidential politics right. Just as the former vice president and 2000 Democratic nominee for the top job was starting to take some of the bold stands that might have inspired grassroots Democrats to consider him anew – criticizing the rush to war with Iraq, pointing an appropriate finger of blame for economic instability at Bush tax policies, and acknowledging that a single-payer national health care plan is needed – he decides NOT to run in 2004.

With his announcement Sunday that he would not seek the Democratic presidential nomination, Gore essentially admitted that he could not get away with remaking himself again. The son of a senator who entertained presidential ambitions, Gore has spent a lifetime preparing for the job he has now decided not to seek. It was that process of preparation that finally caught up with him: As Gore prepared for a new run, he found that too few Democrats were all that enthusiastic about the prospect of deciding which Al Gore they would have to try and elect in 2004.

Gore's announcement gives Democrats a chance to move beyond the reinvention of a man to the more significant task of reinventing their party. Despite his many weaknesses, Gore remained a frontrunner for the 2004 nomination in most polls, largely because of his popularity among the most loyal Democratic constituencies, especially African-Americans. Now, Democrats have an opportunity to offer voters not just a fresh face but a fresh approach.

The operative word here is "opportunity," however, not "certainty." That's because Gore was not the only old Democratic warhorse threatening to take to the track once more. Former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat who made a failed bid for the party nomination in 1988, and soon-to-be former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, are still pondering 2004 runs. Indeed, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Sunday, "I think Daschle will now definitely run."

But Voters had a chance to express confidence in Gephardt and Daschle in the 2002 House and Senate elections; and they chose not to do so – to devastating effect for the party that is now struggling to mount a credible Congressional opposition to the Bush juggernaut. This pair of Congressional leaders would do their party a big favor by following Gore out to pasture.

Two senior senators from New England, Massachusetts' John Kerry and Connecticut's Joe Lieberman, are clearly contending. Kerry has a few things to recommend him – a generally progressive voting record, a compelling personal story, a willingness to take on the Bush administration regarding foreign policy. Lieberman brings none of those assets to the competition, but he has stronger name recognition from his 2000 vice presidential campaign.

Despite repeated missteps that have cost him some of his luster, North Carolina Senator John Edwards still talks about running. Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd and Delaware Senator Joe Biden are both still making noise about entering the contest. And Dodd can point to a sounder voting record than Kerry, Lieberman or Biden. Retired General Wesley Clark has no voting record, but he is also thinking of seeking the nomination.

Vermont Governor Howard Dean is already in the race. On Sunday, he sought to position himself as the closest thing the party has to an anti-war candidate. In Gore's absence, he noted that he is "the only candidate who opposed the president's request for congressional authorization of military force against Iraq and the only one advocating universal health insurance. It makes it easier for me to distinguish myself from the field."

Dean could face some serious competition for the anti-war mantle, however. Now that Gore is out, watch for increased speculation about the prospect that Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, might enter the race. Kucinich's strong anti-war stance is popular with the party faithful, especially in Iowa where doubts about the war are widespread among likely caucus voters. And, if Kucinich runs, he will not necessarily be the last "surprise" entry.

Because of Gore's exit, the race for the Democratic nomination in 2004 will be a better competition, with more candidates and more opportunities for Democrats to shape a fresher and more credible opposition to George W. Bush. Thus, it may be said that Gore did more for his party by leaving the 2004 race than he could ever have done by staying in it.

Trent Lott's "Uptown Klan"

The incredible thing about the controversy surrounding soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's kissing up to the racist legacy of Strom Thurmond is that anyone thinks it is incredible.

Lott is on the hot seat for telling a 100th birthday party for Thurmond, the South Carolina senator who in 1948 ran an overtly racist campaign for president on the State's Rights Party ticket: "I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either."

Those remarks have caused a major stir, which is appropriate. But this is hardly the first time that Lott, who began his political career in the 1960s as an aide to segregationist Democratic Congressman William Colmer, has hailed the legacy of those who fought to defend the practices of slavery and segregation. Nor is the tortured "apology" Lott has issued the first to come from the senator.

Indeed, there is no greater constant in Trent Lott's political career than his embrace of all things Confederate.

To wit:

* In 1978, after his election to the US House, Lott led a successful campaign to have the US citizenship of Jefferson Davis restored. Davis lost his citizenship when he became president of the Confederate States of America when southern states were in open revolt against the US government.

* During the 1980 campaign, after Thurmond spoke at a Mississippi rally for Ronald Reagan, Lott said of the old Dixiecrat: "You know, if we had elected that man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today."

* In 1981, when he was lending his prestige as a member of the US Congress to an effort to preserve the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University -- the notorious South Carolina college that was under fire for prohibiting interracial dating -- Lott insisted that, "Racial discrimination does not always violate public policy."

* Despite the fact that he represents the state with the largest percentage of African-American citizens in the US, Lott has throughout his career been an active supporter of the Sons of the Confederacy, a group that celebrates the soldiers who fought to defend the "right" of Mississippians to own African-Americans as slaves." Lott even appears in recruitment videos for the group.

* Speaking at a 1984 convention of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Lott declared that "the spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican Platform." Asked to explain his statement in an interview with the extreme rightwing publication Southern Partisan, Lott said, "I think that a lot of the fundamental principles that Jefferson Davis believed in are very important to people across the country, and they apply to the Republican Party... and more of The South's sons, Jefferson Davis' descendants, direct or indirect, are becoming involved with the Republican party."

* Lott gave the keynote address at a 1992 national executive board meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a successor organization to the old white Citizens Councils, segregation-era groups the Southern Poverty Law Center refers to as "the white-collar Ku Klux Klan. The C of CC may have changed its name, but it remains a passionate "white racialist" group that condemns intermarriage, integration and immigration by non-whites. As Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson, who has researched the group, argues, "There is no question of the resegregationist agenda of the Council of Conservative Citizens when four of the seven links listed on the home page for former Klan leader David Duke link back to the Council of Conservative Citizens." Other links, Jackson has noted, "deny the Holocaust and sell T-shirts with swastikas and Nazi stormtrooper symbols." But when Lott appeared at that Greenwood, Mississippi, meeting of C of CC leaders, he did not address his disdain for racism or anti-Semitism. Rather, he discussed his concerns about "the dark forces" that he said were overwhelming America and said, "We need more meetings like this across the nation... The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy. Let's take it in the right direction and our children will be the beneficiaries."

* In 1997, Lott was photographed meeting with national leaders of the C of CC in his Washington office. At his side were two prominent C of CC leaders: Gordon Baum, a former field organizer for the Citizens Councils in the days when they were referred to as the "uptown Klan," and William Lord, who has acknowledged using the mailing lists of the Citizens Councils to build the C of CC in the 1980s and 1990s. That same year, the C of CC used an endorsement quote from Lott in recruitment literature.

* When the Washington Post began to detail Lott's ties to the C of CC, his office announced that he had "no firsthand knowledge of the group's views." But when The New York Times asked Lott's uncle, former Mississippi state Sen. Arnie Watson, a member of the C of CC executive board, about ties between the senator and the organization, Watson said, "Trent is an honorary member." When a reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger showed up at a 1998 C of CC meeting in Mississippi, he was told by those in attendance that Lott was a member. Lott's office never challenged the report when it appeared in his homestate's largest newspaper. But a year later, when the Washington Post took the issue up, Lott said, "I have made my condemnation of the white supremacist and racist view of this group, or any group, clear."

* Yet, a column written by Lott still appeared on a regular basis in the Citizens Informer, the group's publication, alongside articles thick with statements like: "Western civilization, with all its might and glory, would never have achieved its greatness without the directing hand of God and the creative genius of the white race. Any effort to destroy the race by a mixture of black blood is an effort to destroy Western civilization itself."

* Go to the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens today and you will find, beneath the Confederate flag and the section attacking an African-American professor at Vanderbilt, a big smiling picture of the Mississippi senator next to headlines that read: "A Lott of Courage!" "C of CC Passes Resolution Commending Lott" and "Lott Needs Your Support."

When he started to face questions about his most recent praise of Thurmond's 1948 Dixiecrat campaign, Lott initially said that his remarks were just part of "a lighthearted celebration" of the retiring segregationist's career. That was enough for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, to give Lott an initial pass. But, thankfully, Julian Bond and the NAACP, and a few African-American and progressive members of the House, refused to allow the matter to die. Only under this lingering pressure did Lott sort of apologize by saying of his statement at the Thurmond bash: "I regret the way it has been interpreted."

That's the standard line from Lott, who always apologizes when he gets caught defending the defenders of slavery and segregation. But, so far, Lott has never failed to follow each "apology" with another tribute to the Confederacy or the segregationists who seek even in the 21st century to maintain the racist legacy of Jefferson Davis, Strom Thurmond and the "uptown Klan."

A Democrat Wins by Running Against Bush

"The light has shown that the Democratic Party is alive and well and united,"Louisiana U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu shouted over the weekend, as she celebratedher victory in the last Senate contest of 2002.

Alive? Yes.

Well? No, but perhaps better diagnosed.

United? Get real.

Louisiana's unique election laws require that, if no contender in acongressional race wins 50 percent in initial voting, the two top vote gettersmust face one another in a runoff election. When Landrieu won just 46 percent ofthe vote on November 5, forcing her into a runoff with Republican Suzanne HaikTerrell, Republican strategists declared that an already battered DemocraticParty would lose another southern Senate seat.

It didn't turn out that way. Landrieu prevailed by a 52-48 margin, and inanother runoff election Democrat Rodney Alexander appears to have narrowly won aUS House seat that had previously been held by a conservative Republican.

Indeed, if November 5 was the worst day of the year for the Democrats, December7may well have been the best.

Of course, nothing has really changed. Republicans will still control theSenate by a margin of 51-49 (Independent Jim Jeffords, I-Vermont, caucuses with48 Democrats). And even if Alexander prevails in an expected recount, the Housewill still be solidly Republican.

But when the results of Louisiana's runoff elections were delivered Saturdaynight, Democrats gained a significant psychological victory. President Bush,Vice President Cheney and just about everyone else who has ever clipped on aWhite House pass showed up in Louisiana to stump for

Terrell. "You had anational parade of Republican all-stars coming into Louisiana for Terrell, ledby Bush himself," recalled veteran Louisiana political commentator Silas LeeIII. But the presidential coattails that supposedly pulled so many Republicansinto Congress in November proved to be slippery in December.

But a couple of wins in Louisiana do not a partisan comebeck make. Democratsstill have a tremendous amount of regrouping to do if they want to be seriousplayers in the presidential and congressional politics of 2004. There are stillthose in the party who push a Republican-lite line on economic issues -- anapproach that, had she adopted it in the runoff, would have guaranteedLandrieu's defeat.

Democrats who are interested in unlocking the secret to their party's future --if there is to be one -- would do well to study the race that led to Saturday's win for Landrieu.

How did Landrieu prevail? She started by firing the Washington-based campaignconsultants who had her bragging during the pre-November 5 campaign about votingwith the Republican president over 70 percent of the time. As oneAfrican-American minister in Louisiana explained, Landrieu's campaign actuallydepressed the Democratic vote becuase sincere Democrats have a hard timefiguring out why they should vote for someone who boasts about backing theRepublican president.

After she fired the consultants, Landrieu made a dramatic shift in her message.Instead of claiming to be 70 percent pro-Bush, she highlighted her differenceswith the president and Republicans in Congress -- especially on bread-and-buttereconomic issues. While Terrell did everything she could to wrap herself in theGOP label, Landrieu ripped the White House for secretly negotiating a trade dealthat would undercut Louisiana sugarcane growers. Sure Terrells is a goodRepublican soldier, Landrieu said, but the Democratic senator and her backersasked: "Do you want a label or a leader? Do you want a rubber stamp or a senator?"

"In the primary, Mary Landrieu ran as a friend of Bush. In the runoff, she hadto distance herself from him," says Lee, who noted that Landrieu's switch to amore skeptical stance regarding Bush administartion policies seems to havehelped her draw more African-American and white working-class voters to thepolls. That effort was aided tremendously when, apparently with a push fromformer President Bill Clinton, state Sen. Cleo Fields, a popularAfrican-American leader who has been at odds with Landrieu since she undercuthis 1995 gubernatorial campaign, endorsed the senator in a show of party unity.

Mary Landrieu was no progressive before December 5, and she is no progressivenow. But by putting some distance between herself and Bush, by reaching out tocore Democratic constituencies, and by focusing in on local economic issues, sheoffered an alternative not just to Terrell but to the Bush administration andRepublican policies.

"Many Democrats who ran close to Bush lost in November -- in Georgia, inMissouri and in other states," says Lee. "Landrieu gained an advantage bydistinguishing herself from the president."

For Democrats, that's a healthy lesson. Running scared and then running tooclose to the Bush administration in November cost opposition party candidatesdearly. Running in December on the argument that it is right to say "no" to Bushwhen he's wrong, especially on economics, paid off for the party -- or at leastfor one of its most embattled senators.

Kissinger? Kissinger?

If President Bush had set out to undermine the credibility of the commission charged with probing the intelligence and security flaws that allowed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to succeed, he would have begun by naming as the chair someone with a track record of secrecy, double-dealing and bartering himself off to the highest bidder.

And so the president, who has resisted the investigation for more than a year, did just that.

With the selection of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to head the 10-member commission, Bush has signaled that he is more interested in covering for the intelligence establishment – and the administration's allies in corrupt oil-producing nations such as Saudi Arabia -- than in getting to the truth.

Even by the relatively low standards that one must apply when dealing with former Nixon administration insiders, Kissinger is a reprehensible figure. As Britain's Guardian newspaper put it: "This man is regarded by many outside the US as a war criminal."

Guardian writer Julian Borger summed up a rather common reaction to the Kissinger selection in a column titled "Henry's Revenge," which opened with the observation that: "Those Europeans who were aware that the old cold warrior was still alive could be forgiven for assuming he was in a cell somewhere awaiting war crimes charges, or living the life of a fugitive, never sleeping in the same bed twice lest human rights investigators track him down."

It is not just a European reaction. In the US Christopher Hitchens' fine book "The Trial of Henry Kissinger" -- which details the former Nixon and Ford adminsitration aide's responsibility for mass killings of civilians, genocide and coups -- remains a best-selling title.

"The Bush administration did not want an objective inquiry into the disastrous intelligence failures," Hitchens said after Kissinger's selection was announced, "and having an inquiry chaired by Henry Kissinger is the next best thing."

Kissinger's role in perpetuating the war in Vietnam, as well as the illegal attacks on Cambodia and Laos during the Nixon years is well documented. So too is his involvement with the murderous coup that overthrew the elected government of Chilean President Salvador Allende and installed the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

Kissinger was, as well, involved in the dirty dealing that encouraged Indonesia's military to invade East Timor and oppress the people of that island nation for a quarter century. And, as chair of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America (1983-84), Kissinger helped the Reagan administration provide cover for the illegal war in Central America.

More recently, Kissinger has been a paid apologist for the Chinese government and a consistent defender of dictatorships around the world. While Kissinger refuses to release the names of his clients -- and client states, it is widely believed that, in addition to his Chinese paymasters, Kissinger is collecting hefty sums of money from interests in the Persian Gulf. National Security Archive founder Scott Anderson, a former staff member of Senate Watergate Committee, is of the view that Kissinger's sordid past -- and compromised present -- will make it impossible for him to lead a credible investigation.

"He has so many clients whose interests are so completely tied up in the results of this investigation," Armstrong says of Kissinger. "The minute you start talking about clerics in Saudi Arabia, it's in no way in the interests of his clients for the whole truth to be told."

About the best that can be said of the selection of Kissinger is this: At 79, he may be inclined to try and finally do something useful for America and the world – in hopes of earning a measure of redemption for an ill-spent life. But no one who cared to find out what really led up to the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington would gamble an investigation so important as this on so remote a prospect.

The Poindextering of Privacy Rights

Back in the days when the United States government was overtly and covertly assisting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and the most extreme Muslim fundamentalists in Afghanistan, US Navy Rear Admiral John Poindexter was in the thick of it.

Serving as the Reagan administration's national security adviser, Poindexter helped devise the secret Iran-Contra networks that the White House used to illegally sell arms to the fundamentalist dictators of Iran and then schemed to divert the ill-gotten gain to the Nicaraguan rebels who sought to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.

Poindexter's violations of the public trust were so extreme that in the late 1980s his story came to serve as an internationally recognized example of what happens when government officials begin to operate outside the legal and moral boundaries of civil society.

Poindexter beat several of his felony convictions (a jury convicted him in 1990 on five felony counts of misleading Congress and making false statements, only to have an appeals court overturn the verdict not because Poindexter was innocent but because Congress had given him immunity in return for his testimony). But few people associated with the scandal-plagued Reagan administration were more discredited than Poindexter. And nothing the retired admiral has done in the past 15 years has restored the faith of rational Americans - or international observers - in this troubled man's sullied integrity.

Except, of course, within the Bush Administration.

With the election of George W. Bush, Poindexter returned to Washington's good graces. Now, with a Congressional seal of approval that was tucked into the Homeland Security bill, he is developing the Total Information Awareness program within a new federal operation, the Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (SARPA). The TIA project, which Poindexter devised, is an ambitious plan to use new software and computer-generated data collection that -in the words of the New York Times - seeks to "use the vast networking powers of the computer to 'mine' huge amounts of information about people."

Under the aegis of the Pentagon, the TIA initiative is ostensibly being designed to help federal agencies identify and locate "potential" terrorists. In reality, the TIA initiative could result in shadowy federal agencies having unprecedented access to the private communications of Americans. Indeed, according to the Times, if Poindexter's plans come to fruition, "all the transactions of everyday life - credit card purchases, travel and telephone records, even Internet traffic like e-mail - would be grist for the electronic mill."

Phil Kent, president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, refers to the initiative as "the most sweeping threat to civil liberties since Japanese-American internment."

The federal government has a responsibility to take legitimate steps to protect Americans from terrorists and terrorism. But that responsibility must be balanced with another responsibility to respect the privacy of law-abiding Americans and to preserve the civil liberties that underpin our freedom.

There is nothing legitimate - or necessary - about creating the sort of massive, secret surveillance network that the TIA has the potential to become. If Poindexter's latest scheme is fully realized, terrorist plotters won't be the only ones posing threats to the security of average Americans. The most persistent threat may well come from reckless players within their own government - one of whom, John Poindexter, has a track record of lawlessness.

That's something that responsible players in Congress ought to be concerned with.

The US Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution will be chaired until January by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis. Feingold, whose courageous opposition to the Patriot Act was based on his concerns about threats posed to civil liberties in general and privacy rights in particular, should use the last weeks of his chairmanship to examine, challenge and steps to place a check upon Poindexter's TIA project. Poindexter and others associated with the Bush administration are still seeking additional legislative authority to undermine privacy rights -- in particular, amendment of the Privacy Act of 1974 -- and the debate over these moves can open the way for an examination of the sorry state of civil liberties in the age of the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Department. Feingold and other senators who raise these issues will find they have unexpected allies among conservative Republicans -- an important factor, since Republicans will soon control all the key committees in the House and Senate. Conservative columnist William Safire has referred to Poindexter's current project as "a sweeping theft of privacy rights." Outgoing US Representative Bob Barr, R-Georgia, has been outspoken in his condemnation of the sections of the Homeland Security legislation that authorize the collection of public and private data into the Pentagon's "centralized grand database," saying: "You would think the Pentagon planning a system to peek at personal data would get a little more attention. It's outrageous, it really is outrageous."

If members of Congress had been more aggressive with Poindexter in the 1980s, the rule of law might well have been respected and many lives would have been saved in Central America. Now, with Poindexter threatening civil liberties at home, Congress again has an opportunity - and a duty - to remind this man that the United States has a Constitution and that it guarantees Americans a right to privacy.

Gore Switches Gears on Health-Care

When the Clinton-Gore administration attempted to reform the nation's approach to financing health care in 1993 and 1994, the one proposal that administration aides always rejected was a single-payer health care system. Even when more Democratic members of the House endorsed a single-payer plan sponsored by US Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Washington, than any other proposal, the administration rejected attempts to cut costs and guarantee quality service for all with a fully government-funded system.

When Al Gore ran for president in 2000, he maintained his opposition to single-payer proposals. Such was Gore's opposition to investing in fundamental health care reforms that he went so far as to criticize costs associated with a plan, advanced by his Democratic primary challenger, Bill Bradley, to take modest steps toward universal coverage.

Now, however, as Gore edges toward another presidential campaign, he is singing a different tune. Wednesday night in New York, as he began a national book tour that many see as an attempt to raise his profile in advance of the 2004 contest, Gore announced that he had "reluctantly come to the conclusion" that the only way to respond to what he described as an "impending crisis" in health care is a "single-payer national health insurance plan" for all Americans.

Gore didn't explain whether that plan would mirror the Canadian system, various European models, or the proposals currently being advanced by members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by McDermott and Representative Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin. Indeed, all Gore aides would say is that his newfound commitment to fundamental health care reform is part of the former vice president's new "speak from the heart and let the chips fall where they may" approach.

Despite his stated reluctance to enthusiastically embrace the single-payer model, Gore's move does position him closer to the mainstream of the Democratic Party primary and caucus voters who will decide the 2004 nomination. As Baldwin has noted, it was her outspoken support for single-payer that distinguished her from two more cautious Democratic opponents in the hard-fought 1998 Democratic primary that ultimately sent her to Congress. A commitment to support the single-payer model, says Baldwin, "is a sign for a lot of voters who are serious about these issues that you are really are committed to work for the health care reforms that are needed."

Pelosi's Commitments

"From the standpoint of commitments, this race is over," House Whip Nancy Pelosi said Friday, as the California Democrat announced that a majority of her colleagues had committed to support her candidacy to replace House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri.

Gephardt revealed Thursday that he would step down from the minority leader position, after Democrats lost their fourth consecutive attempt to retake control of the House in elections two days earlier. That announcement set in place a fast-paced campaign to replace the veteran leader, with a vote by the caucus set for next Thursday.

Initially, it was expected that Pelosi, who argues that Democrats must be more aggressive in challenging the Bush administration and Congressional Republicans, would face House Democratic Caucus chair Martin Frost, D-Texas. But Frost blew up his candidacy with a Thursday press conference in which he attacked Pelosi and seemed to suggest that he wanted to temper the party's message in a way that raised genuine concern among House Democrats. "It sounded like Martin was saying we wanted to make the Democratic message even fuzzier," said one senior Democrat. "After we just finished a campaign where we suffered terribly because we were so unfocused, everyone agrees that we have to sharpen the message, not weaken it."

Frost faced an uphill battle to begin with: Pelosi had already obtained public commitments of support from 111 of her colleagues -- a majority of the caucus members who would vote in the leadership race. The reaction among House members to Frost's press conference made it clear he was not going to break Pelosi backers loose. Thus, on Friday, Frost announced that, "It is clear to me that Nancy Pelosi has the votes of a majority of the caucus."

Frost took the additional step of endorsing Pelosi. "Nancy Pelosi is a talented and capable party leader," Frost wrote in a letter to his colleagues. "I intend to support her for Democratic leader in next week's election, and I will work with her to do everything I can to return Democrats to control of the House of Representatives."

That message undercut the prospects of a late-starting challenge to Pelosi from Tennessee Representative Harold Ford, Jr. Ford's candidacy is generally seen as an attempt by the 32-year-old congressman to raise his profile in the House, rather than a serious bid for the top leadership position. But that has not stopped him from attempting to turn the contest into an ideological duel.

Ford, one of the more conservative members of the Democratic caucus, has been aggressive in his criticism of Pelosi. The Californian, he suggests, it too liberal and too prone toward "obstructionist opposition." In a press conference Friday, he bragged about his ability to work closely with Republicans.

Ford has done a lot of that. He is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, the most conservative organized faction of House Democrats. By contrast, Pelosi has been associated with the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Where Pelosi joined the majority of House Democrats in opposing a Congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to attack Iraq, Ford was an outspoken supporter of the measure. Where Pelosi has sided with labor, environmental and consumer groups -- as well as the overwhelming majority of House Democrats -- to oppose the corporate free trade agenda, Ford has regularly sided with the Bush administration on trade issues.

Referring to his cooperation with Republicans, Ford said Friday, "I think I'm better at doing that than Nancy."

For her part, Pelosi argued at a press conference later in the afternoon that she was willing to look for common ground with Republicans. But, she added, "Where (Democrats) do not have that common ground, we must stand our ground."

Nancy Pelosi Fights to Lead the Democrats

The collapse of Richard Gephardt's leadership of the House Democratic Caucus did not occur on November 5, when the party lost seats in an election where history and economic trends suggested that it should have gained them. That result was simply a confirmation of the crisis that had been evident for more than a year. From the first days of George W. Bush's selected-not-elected presidency, it was clear that Gephardt was unprepared to serve as the leader of Congressional opposition to a Republican president. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he simply stopped trying. That doomed Democratic chances of taking over the House in 2002, as Gephardt failed to define an opposition agenda and took positions out of sync with his own caucus.

That was never more evident than on October 10 when, after Gephardt helped craft the resolution authorizing Bush to launch a unilateral attack on Iraq, the majority of House Democrats voted against the plan. In surprising result, 126 House Democrats opposed it with only 81 joining their leader Gephardt in supporting it.

Among the Democrats who opposed the resolution was House Minority Whip Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat who won the caucus' Number 2 leadership position last year. Pelosi, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, argued -- as did Senate Intelligence Committee chair Bob Graham, D-Florida -- that the Bush administration had failed to make a case for its position. "I have seen no evidence or intelligence that suggests that Iraq indeed poses an imminent threat to our nation," she said, in one of the most powerful indictments of the resolution. "If the Administration has that information, they have not shared it with the Congress."

Pelosi's stance placed her in direct opposition not just to the Bush administration but to Gephardt. And it stirred immediate discussion among House Democrats about what it might be like to be a genuine opposition party. An aggressive progressive, Pelosi has long argued that Democrats need to clearly distinguish themselves from Republicans on domestic and international issues. Now, she can point to Tuesday's election results -- in which Democrats who opposed the Bush agenda on taxes and war ran better than those who compromised with the administration -- as confirmation of her view.

With Gephardt stepping down as minority leader, Pelosi is running hard to replace him. She is not starting from scratch. Speculation about Gephardt's departure -- in order to focus on a 2004 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination -- was rampant in the House even before the election, and Pelosi has been quietly organizing support. But she was not alone in that endeavor. Another prominent House Democrat, Caucus chair Martin Frost, D-Texas, has been running just as hard as Pelosi. On Thursday, a third candidate, Harold Ford, Jr., a 33-year-old centrist from Tennessee, entered the contest with a promise of "a clean break from the ways of the past."

With Gephardt's announcement that he is stepping aside, the contest for the top Democratic leadership post in the House went into high gear. Democrats are set to choose a replacement for the minority leader on November 14. Pelosi is generally seen as the frontrunner, while Frost is expected to be her most serious competitor for the spot. Ford, a close ally of former Vice President Al Gore who is attempting to position himself as a youthful alternative is not expected to prevail -- but his run will do nothing to harm his status as one of the party's rising stars.

Pelosi is reported to have collected commitments from 110 House Democrats to support her candidacy. That would be more than enough to secure the position in a House that, depending on final results from Tuesday, will include 204 Democratic representatives and five delegates from US territories and the District of Columbia.

Commitments of this sort are no guarantee of support in the closed caucus vote, however, and Pelosi's backers do not intend to coast through the next several days. They know they will be involved in a serious internal campaign against Frost, one of the ablest strategists in the House.

It would be a mistake to see the Pelosi-Frost fight purely as a left-right struggle. Pelosi is one of the most progressive members of the House, with a voting record that frequently displays 100 percent support for the positions advanced by organized labor, environmental and consumer groups. But Frost, despite his Texas roots, is no southern conservative. He too has earned his share of 100 percent AFL-CIO ratings over the years. Pelosi has support from some conservative Democrats, who see her as an able fund raiser and an effective spokesperson for the caucus. Frost has liberal supporters who respect the leadership role he's played in coordinating congressional campaigns over the years.

That said, there are clear distinctions. Where Pelosi was a leading foe of the Iraq resolution, Frost supported it. Pelosi has in recent years been an outspoken critic of the corporate free-trade agenda, while Frost has a mixed record that includes a vote to permanently normalize trade relations with China. (That vote by Frost so angered local United Auto Workers members that, in 2000, they removed desks that had been donated for use in the congressman's campaign office. He has since been more supportive of labor's position on trade issues.)

For his part, Ford stands well to the right of both Pelosi and Frist. He voted for the Iraq resolution, regularly supports the corporate free-trade agenda and has a long record of cosy relations with the conservative Democratic Leadership Council. In short, he stands to the right of where Gephardt positioned himself.

While Pelosi and Frost both have more liberal records than Ford, Frost is clearly attempting to position himself to the right in the leadership contest. That was obvious as Frost and Pelosi staked out their visions for how House Democrats should present themselves in the next Congress. "I think that (Pelosi's) politics are to the left, and I think that the party, to be successful, must speak to the broad center of the country," said Frost. The day after Tuesday's vote, Frost's spokesman Tom Eisenhauer was even blunter, telling reporters, "The country moved to the right yesterday. And House Democrats won't win the majority by moving further to the left."

Pelosi, for her part, is arguing that Democrats need to distinguish themselves from Republicans. "To win back the House in 2004," she says, "we need a unified party that will draw clear distinctions between our vision of the future and that espoused by the Republicans."

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