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Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

The Beginning of the End?

"We see this as the beginning of the end," said Tom Andrews, a former Democratic representative from Maine who is executive director of the antiwar group Win Without War. "It's the very beginning of a new wave of activism on this war. There's a real sense that something is beginning to move."--Los Angeles Times, Friday June 17, 2005

Earlier that day, a friend and longtime antiwar activist left me a voice mail message. Just ten days earlier he told me that he was more depressed about our politics than at anytime in the last 40 years. "Hello, this is..." he said. "I was in Washington yesterday at the rally and at the Conyers hearings. And since I laid a heavy statement on you last week, I just wanted to make a correction. It's finally over. My despair is over. Something has happened these last ten days that has revived the antiwar issue. It has to do with public opinion polls and casualties and Republicans like Walter Jones and more Democrats standing up. I won't say how optimistic I am. But something is coming together--you can feel it."

You can feel it.

*Every day brings news of public opinion turning against the occupation--and the President's conduct of the war. Last week, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that for the first time since the war began, more than half of the public believes the US invasion has not made the US more secure; and nearly 40 percent described the situation there now as analagous to the Vietnam War. A new Gallup survey finds that almost 60 percent of Americans say the US should withdraw some or all of its troops from Iraq, the largest number in that category ever. And for the first time, most Americans say they would be "upset" if President Bush sent more troops. Gallup also found that 56 percent now feel the war was "not worth it," and 73 percent consider the number of casualties unacceptable.

* Every day brings news of more Democrats coming forward, standing up and introducing "exit strategy" resolutions. (Though, as of yet, leadership isn't coming from the leadership.) Lynn Woolsey forced a Congressional vote on bipartisan legislation that would have asked Bush to submit a plan to Congress explaining the outlines of an exit strategy from Iraq. Senator Russell Feingold has introduced a nonbinding resolution calling on the Bush Administration to set specific goals for leaving Iraq.

In the House, the International Relations Committee last week voted overwhelmingly, 32 to 9, to call on the White House to develop and submit a plan to Congress for establishing a stable government and military in Iraq that would "permit a decreased US presence" in the country. Congresswomen Maxine Waters (D/CA)--along with 41 Congressional progressives, including Woolsey, John Lewis, Charles Rangel, Jim McGovern, Rush Holt, Marcy Kaptur and Jan Schakowsky--has just formed the "Out of Iraq Congressional Caucus." Its sole purpose, Waters says, "is to be the main agitators in the movement to bring our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan." And Rep John Conyers' impassioned efforts to bring attention to the Downing Street Memo--on Thursday he held hearings on Capitol Hill and then delivered to the White House letters that contained the names of more than 560,000 Americans demanding answers to questions raised by the British memo--has reenergized and refocused opposition to the war.

While the Administration and its allies in Congress are trying to make it seem as if these new initiatives merely reflect Democrats' reading of the polls, I say--bring it on. Let's welcome more Democrats--and sane Republicans--giving legislative expression and voice to the majority of Americans who want to see our Iraq policy changed. (In fact, according to the recent Gallup poll, Congress appears to be lagging behind the public on the issue: Some 72 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of independents and 41 percent of Republicans say they favor a partial or complete withdrawal.)

*Every day brings news of another Republican signing on to the bipartisan resolution introduced last Thursday by Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC)--the man who brought us "Freedom Fries"--and Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii). That resolution calls for the Bush Administration to announce a plan for the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq by the end of the year and to initiate the plan as soon as possible. Maverick Congressman Ron Paul (R/Texas) is already a sponsor, Jim Leach (R/ Iowa) signed on Friday and Howard Coble (R/North Carolina) is considering adding his signature. (With 2006 midterms fast approaching, more Republicans will be hearing from constituents who are growing uneasy about the war. And more GOP members up for reelection may start sounding like Jones, who said in an interview with ABC's George Stephanopolous last weekend that he votes his conscience first, his constituents second, and his party third.)

But much hard and grinding organizing work remains ahead.

On Monday afternoon, Abercrombie and others are going to sit down with Congressman Jones and other House members to discuss options to advance the resolution and build activism against the war.

They'll be supported by a national coalition, that includes Win Without War, MoveOn.org, The National Council of Churches, True Majority, Sojourners, Working Assets and the National Organization of Women, which is planning a grassroots outreach campaign encouraging Members of Congress to sign onto the newly introduced bipartisan resolution.

These organizations are going to be concentrating on those members of Congress who should be particularly susceptible to constituent demand about the war. (As Tom Andrews of the invaluable Win Without War group says, "Take it from one who has been there, in Congress loyalty to one's party leaders and president stops at the 'waters edge' of the voters at home.")

"A prairie fire of activism has started," Andrews argues. "Our job now is to fan these flames and get a conflagration of opposition spreading across the country. We are working with our member groups as well as others on a range of action options to build momentum over the next several months. These will include a major action in Washington in September with what I hope will include a complementary Internet based component. Between those marching in DC and those joining through the Internet around the country I am certain that we could have a million Americans demonstrating against the Bush war in September."

The combination of dropping poll numbers, the grinding images of chaos and violence in Iraq, the daily news of young Americans dying in what seems a senseless war and the increasingly active and visible opposition of constituents is bad news for the president and his Congressional allies.

This really can be the beginning of the end of a disastrous war and a bankrupt national security strategy.

Blogging Iran

Today, voters in Iran cast ballots for a new President--choosing from a field of eight candidates that includes hardline clerics and reformers. The campaign has underscored how dramatically political life inside Iran has changed in recent years.

Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, has been in Iran during the final days of the presidential election, interviewing a wide range of people. In an article this past week, he reported: "The Moin campaign [Mostafa Moin is the leading reformist candidate who polls show as the second choice. He is also the only candidate with an active blog] drew 10,000 people to a rally at Tehran stadium Tuesday night. A number of speakers emphasized that the campaign is aiming to lay the groundwork for a movement--and this election is just the beginning...The Tehran Time reported Wednesday [that] the outspoken Moin 'referred to the upcoming establishment of a Democracy and Human Rights Front in Iran to defend the rights of all Iran's religious and ethnic groups, the youth, academicians, women and political opposition groups whose rights are often neglected..'"

"In a country, " Solomon observed, "where political imprisonment and torture continue, such public statements are emblematic of a courageous movement struggling to emerge from the shadows of the Islamic Republic. "

But that movement for human rights and democracy needs to develop indigenously. As Nobel Peace Prize winner--and Iranian human rights lawyer and activist--Shirin Ebadi warned last year, US government support for Iran's dissidents might not only deprive them of authenticity in their own land but, worse, could stigmatize them as proxies of American neocons intent on regime change.

Or, as Solomon argues: "Iran's most repressive clerics and the USA's most militaristic neocons share a common interest: They're very eager to see the failure of Iranian activism for democracy and human rights...The hardliners in both countries need each other. Theirs is a perverse, mutual dependency that dares not speak its name."

If you want to diversify your newsfeed about this fascinating election--and understand what it may mean for the future of that country--check out the ten blogs I wrote about earlier this month.

As one of Iran's leading bloggers Hossein Derakhshan recently pointed out, the country's many blogs (Iran has 75,000 bloggers) are generating "an unprecedented amount of information." In fact, as he observed: this election "will probably be one of the most open and transparent" Iran has ever seen.

From Freedom Fries to...

Congressman Walter Jones is a Republican from North Carolina, he voted for the war in Iraq, and he coined the term Freedom Fries. So he's obviously no peacenik, but he is the first Republican to break with the White House and call for a firm date to withdraw American troops from Iraq. He says he had a change of heart when he saw the devastation this war has caused to military families across the country.

Military families aren't just speaking to their Congressional representatives; they are speaking loudly to all of us by refusing to allow their sons and daughter, husbands and wives to enlist. President Bush interpreted the November election as an affirmation of his agenda, but as we see from his plummeting poll numbers, the unpopularity of his policy proposals, and the dramatic drop in recruitment numbers, he was wrong.

Congressman Jones said in an interview last Sunday with ABC's George Stephanopoulos that he votes his conscience first, his constituents second, his party third. Even if this is just a good line, it's exactly the way we need our politicians to think if we are ever to get out of this terrible mess in Iraq.

The House of Labor…and the Future

So, with the heaving sound of an old tree suddenly splitting apart in a storm, the labor movement is finally breaking up. Last weekend the SEIU executive board authorized its leadership to leave the AFL-CIO.

Today, the five unions now comprising the Change To Win Coalition (CTWC)--along with SEIU, the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Laborers, and UNITE HERE--meet to form what amounts to a rival federation, whether they all formally leave the AFL-CIO or not. These unions' collective 5 million membership represents 40 percent of the AFL-CIO's 13 million total. If the mammoth 2.7 million member National Education Association aligns with the effort, CTWC will hold exactly half of all union members in the United States.

The avowed basis of the break is a fundamental disagreement on strategy, often depicted as a choice by the insurgents of organizing over politics. This is misleading. Many of the unions remaining in the federation are every bit as committed as the CTWC group to organizing new union members. And some CTWC unions, particularly SEIU, are keenly aware of the importance of politics in increasing union membership. The fight is really about consolidation and political focus. SEIU has argued that the current practice of having several unions competing in single industrial sectors--"15 separate organizations in transportation, 15 in construction, 13 in public employment, 9 in manufacturing, and so on"--defeats the scaled effort needed to take on business in today's climate. It wants to compel fewer, bigger, more clearly sectorally-based unions, as in northern Europe. And it has argued that labor must find ways to mobilize support outside itself, chiefly through more engagement in state and local politics.

It is hard to argue with any of these claims, though whether CTWC can realize its promise is an open question. Even unions without competition in their declared industries are showing declines in density, as indeed are the new Coalition's own members. And outside SEIU itself, and UNITE HERE in a few cities, few of CTWC's members show much commitment to the community links and coalition work needed to gain greater influence over state and local politics. In all the shifting of positions over the past seven months, as this "coalition of the willing" has been constructed, the present result sometimes seems less the principled conclusion to a principled debate than the final triumph of testosterone over inertia.The latter is largely produced by the fragmented governing structure of the AFL,which makes it very difficult to undertake bold initiatives.

But so be it. Barring some miracle at the AFL-CIO convention in late July, or some last-minute membership or governance concession to SEIU offered by one of the loyalists with something it wants (most likely AFSCME)--labor is now split more or less in half. We can look forward to a long ugly period of dissension in America's most important single progressive movement, facing an administration intent on its complete destruction.

I don't think this split was necessary, and still think it would have been best for the state of progressive politics if both sides could have worked out a deal on federation reform. But I also recognize that in the areas of greatest need for labor--organizing, and political engagement and programs in the states and cities--it's hard to do much worse than what is being done now.

So, while I believe that solidarity in the face of an onslaught is preferable, I respect those who argue that standing together may not make sense if they aren't standing in the right place. And I appreciate the difficulty of changing a dysfunctional organization from within. So I wish the insurgents luck. This country desperately needs a labor movement that is again "the collection of many that speaks for all," that can provide an organized and intelligent moral center to a majoritarian progressive politics--the folks who brought you the weekend, the eight-hour day, and so much else that makes this country (almost) civilized. I just wish we weren't starting this way in reclaiming that.

It’s Class, Stupid!

In recent weeks, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have run a series of articles about issues of class and inequality in America.

These two media pillars have comprehensively taken on the root myth of the American way, reporting facts that are so stark and clear that they can no longer be ignored. The gap between rich and poor is widening dramatically; There's been a startling lack of upward mobility over the last three decades; And Americans face no better odds today that they will climb the ladder to a higher economic rung where their parents stood than they did 35 years ago.

As Sylvia Allegretto wrote in the Economic Policy Institute's "The State of Working America 2004/2005," which she co-authored: "The costs of basic necessities like health care, housing, and college keep rising, and many working families' incomes are not keeping pace."

Moreover, as the New York Times recently editorialized, education in this country is "heavily dependent on wealth and class"; and the richer people become, the greater their odds that they will live longer as beneficiaries of the best health care money can buy. All in all, a bleak picture, but one that the media is only slowly starting to grapple with.

As Paul Krugman noted, commenting on his paper's series in his column, "Since 1980 in particular, US government policies have consistently favored the wealthy at the expense of working families--and under the current administration, that favoritism has become extreme and relentless." Conservative economic policies are fueling this phenomenon of an increasingly stratified America. Republicans refuse to raise the minimum wage, which has remained stuck at a paltry $5.15 an hour since 1997. Bankruptcy "reform" savages the working class. Meanwhile, Bush's tax cuts handed a tax reduction of more than $4,500 to the top fifth of income-earners while those in the lowest quintile received an average of only $98 annually off their tax bills.

Another fine series of stories--in the Los Angeles Times--pointed out that policies like deregulating industries, coupled with a right-wing assault on social programs have eroded Americans' safety net and shifted "economic risks from the broad shoulders of business and government to the backs of working families." (The reporter Peter Gosselin received a 2005 Sidney Hillman Award for journalism reporting for this series. Disclosure: I served on the panel of judges. And there were other fine articles submitted on this crucial issue, including a fine series in the Detroit News documenting how Bush tax cuts badly hurt the poor.)

There's a good resource called Toomuchonline.org that I recommend to reporters and anybody else interested in a reality check on America's economy. Sam Pizzigati, a veteran labor journalist, runs and edits the site, which is chock full of useful information. The site has a simple message; it argues that "our society would be considerably more democratic, prosperous and caring if we narrowed the vast gap between the very wealthy and everyone else."

To promote this vision, Pizzigati highlights the gap between the rich and the poor, sheds light on the excesses of the super-wealthy, advocates a "maximum wage" that would cap excessive income and wealth and applauds public and private-sector efforts to reduce inequality and make America a more equitable nation.

The kinds of reforms Pizzigati wants to see enacted are also on display at Toomuchonline.org. Pizzigati praises former SEC chairman Richard Breeden, who proposed a plan that said MCI, which rose out of the ashes of WorldCom's collapse, should prevent a repeat of WorldCom's train wreck by banning executive stock options and capping total CEO compensation. And then there's Congressman Martin Sabo's proposal to ban corporate tax deductions for executive compensation that exceeds more than 25 times what the lowest-paid worker at the company earns.

While Pizzigati commends the Times and the Journal's series on social mobility as "a mainstream media watershed," he also argues that a lot of work remains to be done. The Times, he says, for instance, ignored "inequality's impact on our social health"--i.e. how vastly unequal societies have negative health consequences for all people, not just for the poorest sectors of society.

As Vermont Senate candidate Bernie Sanders says, the corporate-owned media tend to ignore the economic problems that face millions of people on a daily basis. The press doesn't cover, he argues, things like the fact that Americans are "working longer hours for lower wages," living standards have declined, and "we have the most unequal distribution of wealth of any major country on earth…[and] we are the only industrialized country in the world without a national health care system." One result of people not seeing their lives reflected in the media, Sanders argues, is that they think their problems are unique to them, and are not social or political problems that we as a nation can solve by working together.

I believe there's a constituency and an appetite for more stories about class lines in America. Readers want to see their lives and problems treated in our media. There may also be an appetite for real "reality shows." A new FX show, 30 Days, hosted by Supersize Me author Morgan Spurlock premiers this week and could generate a new trend. In the show's first episode, Spurlock and his girlfriend go to Columbus, Ohio and try to live on a minimum-wage income--raising issues of class that we rarely see on our TV sets.

In April 2004, I argued in this space that attention must be paid to those being left behind. More than a year later, the LA Times, the New York Times and the Journal's good series on class are steps in the right direction. Let's hope that these articles (and even that FX show) are just the beginning of a national effort on the media's part to show how people are living in these times. Here's a motto the media should adopt: It's Class, Stupid!

Dumping on Dean

Congressional Democrats never supported Dean for DNC chair. They wanted someone lower-profile and less hyperbolic. Apparently they wanted someone like RNC Chair Ken Mehlman. Still, it was more than a little surprising for Senator Joe Biden, who is not renown for his diplomatic temperament, to take a potshot at the chairman of his own party for rhetorical excess.

When George Stephanopoulos played a clip of Dean on ABC's This Week saying that perhaps Republicans can wait in line to cast ballots because "…a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives," Biden responded, "He doesn't speak for me with that kind of rhetoric. And I don't think he speaks for the majority of Democrats."

Really? Outside the beltway, Dean is immensely popular with the party faithful. He has raised tons of money and is using it to rebuild the infrastructure at the state and local levels. The same infrastructure Biden will need if he decides to run for president.

Besides, Dean's statement is precisely the kind of red meat party chairmen are supposed to throw to rev up their base. You don't hear Republicans pulling any punches.

So enough of the infighting. (Or enough of this kind of infighting. If Dems want to get serious about real internal debates, let's have one about how to end the war and occupation.)

But when it comes to taking on the GOP, Dean and Congressional Democrats should get together and smoke a peace pipe with some cancer patient's now illegal supply of medicinal marijuana. It will help ease the Party's suffering, and lead, perhaps, to better communication.

Republicans Act Like Addicts

I'm beginning to grow concerned for the Republicans. They can't stay on message, they can't pass any reforms, they can't support their President, they can't whip count and they can't get along. They are starting to act like, well, Democrats.

The seven moderate Republicans who compromised on the filibuster were savaged first as traitors, then as dupes. There have been threats of reprisals and primary challenges. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has been mockingly nicknamed "The Senator from New York." An Anybody-But-McCain movement looks to be gaining momentum within the party's base.

The relationship between Congressional Republicans and the White House doesn't look much healthier. Congress has refused to deal with Bush's privatization reforms. A teary-eyed Senator George Voinovich wouldn't switch his vote on John Bolton, delaying a vote. And despite the President's strong support for the zygote, Congressional Republicans defied his veto threat and voted in significant numbers to pass funding for stem cell research.

This issue caused particular acrimony among Senate Republicans Sam Brownback and Arlen Specter, who nearly got into a shouting match over the issue. When Brownback haughtily asked Specter when he thought his life had begun, Specter, who has been fighting cancer, shot back, "I'm a lot more concerned at this point about when my life is going to end."

Power seems to have made the Republicans mad. They are behaving as erratically as drug addicts. But I know a good way to make Republicans right as rain again--a bracing trip back to minority status. Let's plan the intervention for 2006.

Sweet Victory: Minimum Wage Battle Rages On

Talk about a Raw Deal. If we don't see a boost in the federal minimum wage by next year, it will be the longest the country's ever gone without an increase. But after eight straight years of poverty-level minimums, more and more states have decided that enough is enough--or rather, that $5.15 is not enough.

In March, we highlighted minimum wage victories in Vermont and New Jersey, and since then, good news has rolled in from many more states. On May 3rd, Hawaii's legislature voted in favor of increasing the state's minimum to $7.75 by 2007. The next day, Connecticut's State Senate approved a minimum wage hike that will reach $7.65 in the next two years. A week later, Minnesota's legislature raised its floor-level minimum by a dollar per hour.

On June 1, Wisconsin became the twelfth state since January of 2004 to join the movement, establishing a raise that will gradually increase to $6.50 by next year. (Nonetheless, as the Madison Capital Times points out, Wisconsin's victory is tarnished by a clause in the bill which prohibits towns and cities from independently hiking minimums.)

California's House just pushed a minimum wage increase bill to the Senate, and legislation is on the move nationwide with activists from the Ballot Strategy Initiative Center hoping to get minimum wage initiatives on the ballots in nine more states by next year.

And according to a Pew Research Center poll, 86 percent of the public favors increasing the federal minimum which should suggest to the Dems that this can be a winning electoral issue. With an overwhelming consensus of Americans behind this fight, Senator Edward Kennedy is urging Congress to wake up. On May 18th, he introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which calls for raising the minimum wage to $7.15 in three steps. (Click here to ask your reps to suuport the bill.)

One thing is for certain: even if Congress continues to leave millions of working Americans in the lurch, the movement in states shows no signs of slowing down.

We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by e-mailing nationvictories@gmail.com.

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.

Sweet Victory: Rell Vows to Clean Up Connecticut

If you thought last week's Sweet Victory--highlighting the electoral reform movement sweeping North America--was encouraging, you'll be thrilled with the news coming out of Connecticut. Yesterday, Republican Governor M. Jodi Rell called for a "clean elections bill," in what could become the boldest and most far-reaching plan for campaign finance reform in the country.

And Connecticut, which has been wracked by recent government corruption, is badly in need of reform. The scandal surrounding former Gov. John Rowland, who resigned and is now serving a one-year prison sentence for accepting gifts from state contractors, is symptomatic of a campaign system that favors big money and special interests over voters.

After weeks of deadlock, Rell and State Senate Republicans not only agreed to accept the Democrats' plan for public financing of all statewide campaigns but took the reform further, proposing a ban on contributions from lobbyists and state contractors. "This is real reform," said Rell, who will set aside $5 million to fund the initiative. "If you accept it, we will make history in Connecticut."

Rell's sudden turnaround seems too good to be true for some of the House Democrats, who remain skeptical about how the radical proposal will affect their party in the state. Tom Swan, Executive Director of the Clean-Up Connecticut Campaign--a coalition of fifty organizations rallying for campaign reform--says "corporate Democrats" are the only thing standing in the way of getting the bill passed. "They're tentative because they're being asked to accept a totally open process for a political system that they've figured out how to win," says Swan. "It takes a great deal of courage for both parties to admit that the current way we finance campaigns is corrupt."

Maine and Arizona have strong public finance laws, but those came about as a result of ballot initiatives, and don't have the sweeping scope of Rell's proposal. "This would be the strongest campaign finance reform bill ever passed," says David Donnelly of Public Campaign, "and the fact that this initiative came from within the legislature is unprecedented."

Connecticut's legislative session ends on June 6, and while Donnelly is confident that both parties will come to an agreement by the deadline, he urges Connecticut residents to click here and write to their legislators demanding the best possible reform.

We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by e-mailing nationvictories@gmail.com.

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.

Cinderella Man Vs. Social Security Privatization

Will Ron Howard's new film Cinderella Man help deliver a KO to Bush's Social Security privatization scam? It's easy to read too much into Hollywood's influence on our politics, but this movie comes out just as it's becoming clear that, as a recent memo by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg put it, "Social Security is a disaster for the President."

In Cinderella Man, which opens June 3, Russell Crowe plays James Braddock Jr., the contender from North Bergen, New Jersey, who breaks his hand and slides into boxing oblivion--and onto the welfare rolls--only to make the unlikeliest of comebacks at the height of the Great Depression, culminating in a June 1935 fight with Max Baer for the heavyweight championship of the world.

How does all of this affect the current debate about the future of Social Security? By depicting the beneficial effects of welfare during the Depression, the film subtly underscores the importance of preserving what was a cornerstone of the New Deal.

"I've always been fascinated by the Depression," Howard said in a recent interview with the New York Times. (While in high school, Howard made a documentary about the Depression, interviewing his father and others and using old photographs.)

In Cinderella Man, Howard says, "I wanted to remind people that the working poor existed then, and we have it today. While the economy is mostly up and then sometimes down--the Internet bubble bursting felt a bit like '29, where people had overextended and fallen into that trap again--we're anxious. Our population is anxious. We're not in a depression, thank God, but I think it's crossing our minds that something could happen, things could change and not for the better, for the worse."

Will Russell Crowe KO Bush's shameless scam to shred America's most successful antipoverty program? Here's hoping that his blows, added to the thousands inflicted by tireless organizers and ordinary citizens, successfully expose this rip-off.

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