John Nichols | The Nation

John Nichols

John Nichols

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

A Conservative Takes on Ashcroft

There are those who wrongly believe that the debate over civil liberties in this country breaks along ideological grounds. It's an easy mistake to make: Especially when Attorney General John Ashcroft, a certified -- and, arguably, certifiable -- conservative is treating the Constitution like it was a threat to America.

The important thing to remember is that Ashcroft's misguided war on individual rights has been supported at key turns by top Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. Both Democrats backed the draconian USA PATRIOT ACT last fall, as did the overwhelming majority of their fellow Congressional Democrats. And both Daschle and Gephardt have been troublingly mild in their criticism of Ashcroft's recent attempt to interpret that legislation in a manner guaranteed to undermine Constitutional protections.

To be sure, criticism of Ashcroft's excesses has not fit into the easy stereotypes that are often used to analyze Congress. US Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who broke with Democrats to back Ashcroft's nomination for attorney general, cast the sole Senate vote against Ashcroft's anti-terrorism legislation. Georgia conservative Bob Barr and California liberal Maxine Waters, bitter foes during the Clinton impeachment fight of 1998, held a joint press conference to condemn the Bush administration's disregard for civil liberties.

That opposition to Ashcroft's assault on the Constitution does not follow predictable patterns became evident last week, when House Judiciary Committee Chair James Sensenbrenner, R-Wi., emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of the administration's latest initiatives in the ever-expanding domestic "war on terrorism."

Sensenbrenner, an old-fashioned conservative Republican who has represented a suburban Milwaukee district since 1979, has forged a remarkably solid working relationship with the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Michigan's John Conyers. Sensenbrenner and Conyers attempted to temper the anti-terrorism legislation when it came before their committee last fall, only to have some of their most important efforts thwarted by Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.

In his recent condemnations of Ashcroft's scheming, Sensenbrenner was sounding a lot like the liberal Conyers.

After Ashcroft issued new surveillance guidelines that would permit FBI monitoring of Internet sites, libraries, churches and political groups, Sensenbrenner said: "I believe that the Justice Department has gone too far."

While the Republican attorney general said new surveillance powers were needed to fight terrorism, the Republican House Judiciary Committee chair said those powers could return the United States to the "bad old days" of civil liberties abuses by the FBI.

Sensenbrenner has gone out of his way to remind the current Republican administration that the protections against FBI abuses of civil liberties that Ashcroft is now seeking to override were written under a Republican president, Gerald Ford. Arguing that the existing surveillance guidelines have served the country well, Sensenbrenner says he wants Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller to appear before the Judiciary Committee to justify proposed shifts.

"(The) question that I ask, and which I believe that Mr. Ashcroft and Mr. Mueller have to answer, is, Why do we need to change (the guidelines) now?" insists the conservative congressman.

"We want to make sure that the FBI, which hasn't had a good track record lately, doesn't go on the other side of the line," adds Sensenbrenner, who recently told CNN it was absurd "to throw respect for civil liberties into the trash heap" in order to strengthen the hand of the FBI.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is currently holding FBI oversight hearings. To his credit, Leahy says, "There is no institution of our government that should be above question."

But it would be nice if Leahy and other Democrats were as blunt as Sensenbrenner, who recalls former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's surveillance of civil rights leaders and says, "I get very, very queasy when federal law enforcement is effectively saying (they are interested in) going back to the bad old days when the FBI was spying on people like Martin Luther King."

Democrats on the Fast Track

It is no secret that grassroots Democrats around the country oppose the free-trade regimen advocated by the Bush administration and the corporate lobbyists who have shaped the debate on trade issues inside the beltway.

The Democratic party's core constituencies well understand that the North American Free Trade Agreement, the normalization of trade relations with China and other corporate free-trade initiatives have led to the shuttering of American factories, depressed prices for family farmers and the use of trade policy to assault laws protecting the environment in the U.S. and abroad. Even the most conservative estimates suggest that NAFTA has cost at least 360,000 Americans their jobs -- and that is merely the easiest measure of the impact of free-trade agreements that allow multinational corporations, as opposed to citizens and their elected officials, to write the rules for protection of workers, farmers and the environment.

Recognizing the flaws in a corporate-dictated free-trade system, groups with a history of good relations with the Democratic party have been among the loudest foes of the Bush administration's attempts to gain Fast Track authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement that critics refer to as "NAFTA on steroids."

The AFL-CIO and its affiliate unions have actively opposed Fast Track, as have the Sierra Club and other major environmental groups, and the National Farmers Union and organizations that represent family farmers as opposed to corporate agribusiness interests. So too have human rights and religious groups concerned about poverty and social justice in the U.S. and internationally.

In the House of Representatives, where Fast Track passed by a 215-214 margin in December, 194 Democrats opposed the legislation while just 23 backed it.

In the Senate, however, where Democrats are in charge, a marginally modified version of the Fast Track legislation won passage Thursday by a 66-30 margin. While 25 Democrats opposed Fast Track, 24 Democrats and one Independent who caucuses with the Democrats -- Vermont's Jim Jeffords -- backed the legislation. (The last Democrat, Hawaii's Daniel Inouye missed the vote.)

So who were the free-trade Democrats in the Senate? Many were southern conservatives such as Georgia's Zell Miller, but many more were Democrats who portray themselves as friends of labor, family farmers, environmental groups and other Democratic constituencies that lobbied against Fast Track. Indeed, several of the Fast Track-backing Democrats are potential contenders for the party's 2004 presidential nomination.

Among those voting for Fast Track was Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D- South Dakota. Joining Daschle in voting for the measure was Connecticut's Joseph Lieberman, who in recent weeks has stepped up efforts to position himself as a 2004 contender, North Carolina's John Edwards and Delaware's Joe Biden. Even Massachusetts' John Kerry, who sought to add a good amendment to the legislation, ultimately joined the vast majority of Senate Republicans in backing Fast Track.

Among senators whose names have been floated as potential 2004 Democratic presidential contenders, only Connecticut's Chris Dodd and Wisconsin's Russ Feingold voted against Fast Track. They were joined by another senator whose name is often mentioned but who regularly takes herself out of contention -- Hillary Clinton.

Fast Track was amended sufficiently in the Senate to mean that it will go to a House-Senate conference committee, where a compromise version of the legislation is expected to be be crafted and then sent back for votes in both chambers. Fast Track could yet get beat in the House, where opposition could actually grow in an election year.

Most of the Democratic senators who harbor presidential ambitions are no doubt hoping that the House will clean up the Fast Track mess. Then they will be able to continue to collect contributions from corporate interests that want unregulated free trade, while publicly presenting themselves as contenders who are in touch with the party's base.

The Democratic party's base would do well to remember how the voting went when the Senate could have derailed Fast Track, however. It is a good measure of how reliable a Democratic president might be the issues that workers, farmers, environmentalists and supporters of international human rights take a lot more seriously than do many Democratic senators.

Cynthia McKinney and the 'What Bush Knew' Debate

In April, U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., got in a whole heap of trouble after she called for a thorough investigation of what George W. Bush knew before September 11 about the potential for the sort of terrorist attacks that would shake the nation and the world on that fateful day.

McKinney is one of the most outspoken members of the current Congress and her statements were typically blunt. "We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11th," she told a radio interviewer. "What did this administration know and when did it know it, about the events of September 11th? Who else knew, and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered? . . . What do they have to hide?"

McKinney's call for a real investigation of what Bush knew -- along with her parallel suggestion that it was necessary to conduct a review of possible war profiteering by members of the Bush administration and corporations with close ties to the president -- drew a firestorm from pundits and partisans.

"The American people know the facts, and they dismiss such ludicrous, baseless views," grumbled White House spokesman Scott McLellan. "The fact that she questions the president's legitimacy shows a partisan mind-set beyond all reason." The Washington Post declared in a news story that McKinney "seems to have tapped into a web of conspiracy theories." National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg, in a piece headlined "Representative Awful: Cynthia McKinney?s insanity and hypocrisy" went on at length about how the five-term representative was spouting "paranoid, America-hating, crypto-Marxist conspiratorial delusions" -- and Goldberg's jabs were restrained compared to the hits the congresswoman took hour after hour after hour from the Fox News Channel punditocracy.

McKinney was even accused by her hometown newspaper, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, of buying into a "wacko left-wing version of paranoid hatred of the president." For good measure, Journal-Constitution editorial page editor Cynthia Tucker added, "McKinney has made herself too easy a target for mockery. She no longer deserves serious analysis."

Barely one month after McKinney was so condemned, the headline of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution read: "Bush warned by U.S. intelligence before 9/11 of possible bin Laden plot to hijack planes." The Washington Post front page announced: "Bush Was Told of Hijacking Dangers." The Fox News Channel was repeating the big story of the day: "Bush Was Warned of Hijack Plot."

McKinney clearly feels a measure of vindication. "Today's revelations that the administration, and President Bush, were given months of notice that a terrorist attack was a distinct possibility points out the critical need for a full and complete congressional investigation," she said in a statement issued Thursday morning. "It now becomes clear why the Bush Administration has been vigorously opposing congressional hearings. The Bush Administration has been engaged in a conspiracy of silence. If committed and patriotic people had not been pushing for disclosure today's revelations would have been hidden by the White House."

The news that President Bush was told a month before September 11 that Osama bin Laden's terrorist network might hijack American airplanes does not confirm each and every concern expressed by McKinney in April. For instance, White House aides were quick to assert on Wednesday that the president and U.S. intelligence agencies were not aware of the precise plans of the suicide hijackers to use commercial jetliners as missiles in attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

That assertion is significant, as it argues Bush did not know that a specific terrorist attack was coming on September 11 or the form that such an attack might take. Thus, there will continue to be serious -- and legitimate -- debate about whether the "numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11" could actually have been read so specifically. Additionally, the recent revelations to not point to a conclusion that the Bush administration intentionally failed to warn "the innocent people of New York." America is, at most, only at the beginning of what could well be a very long examination of the question of whether the president, his aides and the intelligence community could have put the pieces of information together in a way that might have prevented the September 11 attacks.

So Bush has not exactly been caught holding a smoking gun. And it is still quite reasonable for McKinney's political critics -- as well as her allies -- to suggest that much of the speculation in which McKinney engaged in April will not pan out. In fairness to the representative, however, she can claim to have acknowledged as much at the time. It is notable that McKinney expressed many of her concerns in the form of questions, rather than the sort of over-the-top statements that Republican representatives made when they used to call for investigations of Bill Clinton.

What is equally notable is that, two months after McKinney was subjected to one of the most withering attacks ever directed at a sitting member of Congress, a lot of people who official Washington treats with respect are echoing her call "for transparency and a thorough investigation."

House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Missouri, said Wednesday that Congress needs to hold public hearings that examine "what the president and what the White House knew about the events leading up to 9-11, when they knew it and, most importantly, what was done about it at that time."

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat who has worked closely with the Bush administration on intelligence and domestic security issues, was asked whether a more engaged response to the threat of hijackings might have averted the September 11 attack. "Well, it might have been if this had been seen in the context of other information, which indicated that there was a potential conspiracy to use commercial airliners as weapons of mass destruction. That could have started a chain of events, which would have disrupted September 11..." the senator said.

Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican who serves as vice chairman of the Intelligence Committee, echoed Graham. "There was a lot of information," Shelby said Thursday. "I believe, and others believe, if it had been acted on properly, we may have had a different situation on September 11."

Is official Washington beginning to suffer from "paranoid, America-hating, crypto-Marxist conspiratorial delusions"? Have top members of Congress "tapped into a web of conspiracy theories"? Are the White House aides who confirmed that Bush knew of the hijacking threat before September 11 expressing a "wacko left-wing version of paranoid hatred of the president"?

Or are they, perhaps, beginning to recognize that, at the very least, McKinney was making a reasonable point when she argued in April that: "We deserve to know what went wrong on September 11 and why. After all, we hold thorough public inquiries into rail disasters, plane crashes, and even natural disasters in order to understand what happened and to prevent them from happening again or minimizing the tragic effects when they do. Why then does the Administration remain steadfast in its opposition to an investigation into the biggest terrorism attack upon our nation?"

The New Politics of September 11

Since Sept. 11, George W. Bush?s political team and their Republican allies have used every trick to exploit the tragedy for political advantage. Just this week, they were trying to raise campaign money by hawking photos of Bush taking instructions from Vice President Dick Cheney on that fateful day.

The crass politicization of a national tragedy may have offended Bush?s critics. But the image of Bush as the serious-minded battler against threats to homeland security was too good a political tool to surrender. And they planned to keep hammering the Democrats with it through November.

Then the hammerhead flew off.

Two days of revelations about how the president was told a month before Sept. 11 that Osama bin Laden?s terrorist network might hijack American airplanes provided a reminder that exploiting tragedy is a dangerous political game.

It can fairly be said that May 16 was the first day since Sept. 11 that the terrorist threat was not being played for advantage by the Bush camp. In fact, the Bush team was on defense - trying, not very successfully, to explain why neither the president, nor his national security advisers, nor his hand-picked intelligence aides were able to put together pieces of information that, in hindsight, seem to fit together so obviously.

They were not being helped by Republican allies in Congress, who after years of attacking Bill Clinton?s administration for failing to fight terrorism effectively suddenly found themselves trying to explain away their own team?s inability to "connect the dots."

"There was a lot of information," said Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chair Richard Shelby, R-Ala. "I believe, and others believe, if it had been acted on properly, we may have had a different situation on Sept. 11."

Ouch! Coming from a senior Republican senator, that hurts.

Make no mistake, Bush has been hurt by revelations regarding his response to the warnings of terrorist threats before Sept. 11. It is not just that the revelations play on a weakness of the president - the sense that he is not exactly the real-life equivalent of "West Wing?s" all-knowing President Bartlett. As troubling is the evidence that the administration obviously worked to keep details of what the president knew before Sept. 11 secret.

Ever since Richard Nixon?s presidency, the most devastating question that can be asked of a chief executive is: "What did he know and when did he know it?" Nixon was done in by that question. Bill Clinton was almost finished by it.

Now House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., is asking "what the president and what the White House knew about the events leading up to 9-11, when they knew it and, most importantly, what was done about it at that time."

Those questions should have been asked last September. But Democratic Congressional leaders blew their role as a loyal opposition then.

Now the question is whether the Democrats will blow that role again.

They will do just that if they mirror the crass partisanship of the Bush camp. If Democrats in Congress attempt to use revelations about the run-up to Sept. 11 simply to score political points, they will ultimately be foiled.

Partisan wrangling favors the Bush team. They want Americans to think criticism of the president is nothing more than politics.

The action on these issues will be in the Senate, where Democrats are in charge, not in the Republican-controlled House -- where Florida Rep. Porter Goss, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee is already grumbling that, "It is not news that the president of the United States is briefed about Osama bin Laden and hijackings. That?s just not news."

However, Democrats in the Senate will make little progress if they handle this issue as they have most others since taking charge of the Senate a year ago.

The smart strategy is to focus on supporting a serious Senate inquiry, probably led by Shelby -- who has shown a measure of independence from the administration -- and Florida Democrat Bob Graham, the chair of the Intelligence Committee. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, who is great at drawing Republican fire but not very good at actually challenging the administration, would be wise to step back.

Daschle should allow members of his caucus who have expertise in intelligence matters and in the investigation of presidential misdeeds take the lead. It is notable that, since September, some of the most thoughtful and pointed criticism of the Bush administration?s approach to the war on terrorism and related issues has come from senior members of the Senate such as West Virginia?s Robert Byrd and South Carolina?s Ernest Hollings. With more experience and less to lose, they have been far tougher on the Bush camp than their poll-obsessed younger colleagues. This fact ought not be lost of Democrats: As with past investigations of White House wrongdoing have taught, the wisest approach to let the point people be senators who are not entertaining notions of making their own presidential runs.

Instead of going straight for the jugular this time, it is better for Democrats to go for the truth. A full frontal assault for purely partisan purposes will be turned back. On the other hand, if the Bush administration did conspire to withhold essential information from the American people before and after Sept. 11, and if Senate Democrats mount a well-focused effort to get the whole story, it is indeed possible that the current president will suffer the fate of past Oval-Office occupants who failed the "what did they know and when did they know it" test.

Derailing Fast Track: Senate votes reopen trade fight

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."

A Congressman's Defeat Spells Trouble for Business Democrats

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.

A Voting Reform That Works Is Transforming Texas

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.

Seventy-Five Thousand Protest in Washington

"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."

It's Time to Turn the Farm Bill Debate Into a Food Fight

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.

British Tell Blair Not to Be President's 'Poodle'

"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."

Syndicate content