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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.

Democracy is on the Ballot

On May 1, 2003, George W. Bush donned a flight suit and landed in a jet on the Abraham Lincoln's flight deck off the coast of San Diego. There, in front of sailors and camera crews, the President of the United States pranced around with a banner behind him that said, "Mission Accomplished."

A year later, as we note in our lead editorial this week, "Bush is unable to admit error and continues to promote a false triumphalism. Instead of leveling with the American people about his administration's miscalculations, he forbids the release of pictures showing the caskets of dead troops returning home, and instead of discussing options for ending a war that should never have been waged, he offers nothing but insulting and insensitive 'stay the course' rhetoric."

Perhaps the most egregious lesson that we should take away from May 1st is that this http://www.thenation.com/directory/view.mhtml?t=000706 "> administration routinely abuses its power and regularly tramples democracy without batting an eye.

In his excellent http://www.wwnorton.com/catalog/spring04/005942.htm "> forthcoming book, Losing America, Senator Robert Byrd delivers a wakeup call to all citizens. Charging that http://www.thenation.com/directory/view.mhtml?t=00090t "> Bush is destroying our civil liberties and undermining the Constitution's checks and balances, Byrd warns that "In times of war or crisis, it becomes very easy to cloak everything under the unassailable mantle of national security, or even the more euphemistically effective 'patriotism.'"

Part of the blame for an executive branch that has broken free of accountability lies with Congress, which cravenly capitulated to Bush's White House in the run-up to war. When Bush lied about the presence of http://www.thenation.com/directory/view.mhtml?t=040205 "> WMD in Iraq, Congress--including, sadly, too many Democrats---ignored the truth and handed the President a blank check in voting for the resolution authorizing war against Iraq. (Click http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20021014&s=editors "> here to read The Nation's Open Letter to Congress on the eve of that vote.)

But the real villains in this pre-war period wasn't Congress; they were, of course, http://www.thenation.com/directory/view.mhtml?t=00090t "> Bush and his top lieutenants. They not only lied about WMD in Iraq, they also deceived the public about Saddam's Al Qaeda connections--and we now know that the http://www.thenation.com/directory/view.mhtml?t=000706 "> Bush Administration illegally diverted funds earmarked for Afghanistan to Kuwait and Iraq. It is also increasingly clear that Bush's scheme has parallels with Reagan's deceptions in the Iran Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.

Bush, in truth, disdains free and fair debate and abhors honesty in government, principles that form the foundation of democracy. In his http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/031600023X/002-3037997-069... "> new book Worse than Watergate, http://www.twbookmark.com/authors/66/2937/index.html "> John Dean convincingly argues that Bush is a greater danger than even the notoriously paranoid Nixon. "No one died for Nixon's so-called Watergate abuses," observes Dean.

On the all-important domestic front, Bush and his cronies have lied about the cost of the new Medicare law and stonewalled the bipartisan 9/11 Commission. In front of the Supreme Court last Tuesday, Bush's lawyers defended Vice-President Cheney's right to keep his Energy Task Force a secret and asserted blanket immunity for the executive branch from almost any public scrutiny. Meanwhile, at John Ashcroft's Justice Department, Jose Padilla and other so-called "enemy combatant" detainees are forbidden from even seeing a lawyer or appearing in a court of law.

Another example of Bush's thuggish abuse of power comes from http://www.avalonpub.com/carroll_graf.html "> Joseph Wilson's new book, The Politics of Truth: Inside the Lies that Led to War and Betrayed My Wife's CIA Identity (Carroll & Graf). Wilson, a former US ambassador, alleges that Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, Cheney's Chief of Staff, or Elliot Abrams illegally leaked the identity of his wife, Valerie Plame, a CIA agent involved in counter-espionage as political payback for Wilson going public with his doubts that Saddam Hussein ever tried to purchase enriched uranium from the small African nation of Niger.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently observed that this administration constituted "a sort of elected dictatorship." While I consider "selected dictatorship" a more appropriate phrase, (can't forget Florida!), Krugman's point is crucial: This administration will abuse any law and assert any privilege to attack its critics and achieve its goals. If democracy gets trampled underfoot, then Bush's attitude is, simply,tough.

So not only will Bush's reelection campaign be on the line in November, but American democracy will be on the ballot, too. If Americans are serious about guarding their civil liberties, maintaining their freedoms, and increasing their security, they must heed Byrd, Dean and Wilson's powerful warnings to the republic--and vote to re-defeat Bush and re-install democracy in November.

An Open Letter to Tony Blair

In an unprecedented open letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair published in both the Guardian and Independent newspapers on Tuesday, April 27, (and reprinted below), fifty-two former British ambassadors, high commissioners, governors and senior international officials criticized Blair's unflinching support for George Bush's handling of postwar Iraq and Ariel Sharon's "disengagement" plan in the Occupied Territories.

Arguing that the Bush/Blair foreign-policy is only increasing bloodshed and instability in the region, the letter makes a powerful case for a fundamental shift in approach. Isn't it time for a group of retired American diplomats to band together and speak out against the http://www.thenation.com/directory/view.mhtml?t=000706 "> Bush Administration's policies which, as their British counterparts warn, "are doomed to failure?"

Doomed to Failure in the Middle East: A letter from 52 former senior British diplomats to Tony Blair

Dear Prime Minister,

We the undersigned former British ambassadors, high commissioners, governors and senior international officials, including some who have long experience of the Middle East and others whose experience is elsewhere, have watched with deepening concern the policies which you have followed on the Arab-Israel problem and Iraq, in close cooperation with the United States. Following the press conference in Washington at which you and President Bush restated these policies, we feel the time has come to make our anxieties public, in the hope that they will be addressed in parliament and will lead to a fundamental reassessment.

The decision by the US, the EU, Russia and the UN to launch a "road map" for the settlement of the Israel/Palestine conflict raised hopes that the major powers would at last make a determined and collective effort to resolve a problem which, more than any other, has for decades poisoned relations between the west and the Islamic and Arab worlds. The legal and political principles on which such a settlement would be based were well established: President Clinton had grappled with the problem during his presidency; the ingredients needed for a settlement were well understood and informal agreements on several of them had already been achieved. But the hopes were ill-founded. Nothing effective has been done either to move the negotiations forward or to curb the violence. Britain and the other sponsors of the road map merely waited on American leadership, but waited in vain.

Worse was to come. After all those wasted months, the international community has now been confronted with the announcement by Ariel Sharon and President Bush of new policies which are one-sided and illegal and which will cost yet more Israeli and Palestinian blood. Our dismay at this backward step is heightened by the fact that you yourself seem to have endorsed it, abandoning the principles which for nearly four decades have guided international efforts to restore peace in the Holy Land and which have been the basis for such successes as those efforts have produced.

This abandonment of principle comes at a time when rightly or wrongly we are portrayed throughout the Arab and Muslim world as partners in an illegal and brutal occupation in Iraq.

The conduct of the war in Iraq has made it clear that there was no effective plan for the post-Saddam settlement. All those with experience of the area predicted that the occupation of Iraq by the coalition forces would meet serious and stubborn resistance, as has proved to be the case. To describe the resistance as led by terrorists, fanatics and foreigners is neither convincing nor helpful. Policy must take account of the nature and history of Iraq, the most complex country in the region. However much Iraqis may yearn for a democratic society, the belief that one could now be created by the coalition is naive. This is the view of virtually all independent specialists on the region, both in Britain and in America. We are glad to note that you and the president have welcomed the proposals outlined by Lakhdar Brahimi. We must be ready to provide what support he requests, and to give authority to the UN to work with the Iraqis themselves, including those who are now actively resisting the occupation, to clear up the mess.

The military actions of the coalition forces must be guided by political objectives and by the requirements of the Iraq theatre itself, not by criteria remote from them. It is not good enough to say that the use of force is a matter for local commanders. Heavy weapons unsuited to the task in hand, inflammatory language, the current confrontations in Najaf and Falluja, all these have built up rather than isolated the opposition. The Iraqis killed by coalition forces probably total 10-15,000 (it is a disgrace that the coalition forces themselves appear to have no estimate), and the number killed in the last month in Falluja alone is apparently several hundred including many civilian men, women and children. Phrases such as "We mourn each loss of life. We salute them, and their families for their bravery and their sacrifice," apparently referring only to those who have died on the coalition side, are not well judged to moderate the passions these killings arouse.

We share your view that the British government has an interest in working as closely as possible with the US on both these related issues, and in exerting real influence as a loyal ally. We believe that the need for such influence is now a matter of the highest urgency. If that is unacceptable or unwelcome there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure.

Yours faithfully,

Sir Graham Boyce (ambassador to Egypt 1999-2001); Sir Terence Clark (ambassador to Iraq 1985-89); Francis Cornish (ambassador to Israel 1998-2001); Sir James Craig (ambassador to Saudi Arabia 1979-84); Ivor Lucas (ambassador to Syria 1982-84); Richard Muir (ambassador to Kuwait 1999-2002); Sir Crispin Tickell (British permanent representative to the UN 1987-90); Sir Harold (Hooky) Walker (ambassador to Iraq 1990-91), and 44 others.

Join the Battle for the White House

You don't have to live in a battleground state to join the battle for the White House in November. With an election that is almost certain to be decided by a whisker in a handful of swing states, those of us who live in places like New York--where the outcome on November 2nd is not in doubt--can too easily feel like spectators to the most important political contest of our lives. The candidates come here to fundraise and we can, and do, contribute, but what else can we do to have a direct impact on who becomes the next President?

One answer, at least in two states with lots of progressives eager to be put to work, is being provided by the USAction affiliates in New York and New Jersey. Together Citizen Action of New York and New Jersey Citizen Action are kicking off Volunteer2004.org, a project to organize volunteers in both states to collectively contact 500,000 voters in battleground states like Ohio, Florida, Tennessee, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Missouri. Through a combination of door-to-door trips to neighboring states and phone banks throughout New York and New Jersey, volunteers can now turn their anger and angst into action.

As the polls constantly remind us, this will be a very close election. That means that every voter contact can make a difference. Florida, where the official gap between Bush and Gore was 537, wasn't even the closest election in 2000; the margin in New Mexico was 366. And in several other states, a few thousand votes separated winner from loser. Both sides are expecting the same tight races, largely in the same places, this year. Which is why we're seeing an unprecedented emphasis, at least in the forty years since TV came to dominate elections, on old-fashioned fieldwork, the kind that groups like USAction have long specialized in.

The battle will be fought on two fronts. All sides will be working to mobilize their voters, with unprecedented door-to-door, phone and mail operations. And the candidates will be fighting mightily to win the hearts of the small but crucial proportion of voters who remain undecided. The Volunteer2004 program is doing both, putting New York and New Jersey volunteers to work "mobilizing the mobilizables" and "persuading the persuadables."

USAction is a member of America Votes, the national coalition that includes NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO and many others, which is coordinating voter mobilization in the swing states. As such, the Volunteer2004 effort could provide grassroots progressives with an army of volunteer reinforcements for the battleground state effort.

It's easy to participate. Just click here to sign up in New York or New Jersey. You'll be given lots of opportunities to make calls, get on the bus and get out the vote. One hour of volunteer time will allow you to talk with as many as 35 voters in key states. And next time you read an article about the battleground states, you'll know that you've joined the battle to take back our nation from the extremist Right.

Let's Take Back America

Looking for a savvy, sassy and strategic agenda to counter the rightwing and take America back from the most extremist http://www.thenation.com/directory/view.mhtml?t=000706 "> Administration of our lifetime? Pick up a copy of Taking Back America--And Taking Down the Radical Right, a new collection of articles which I co-edited with Campaign for America's Future head http://www.thenation.com/directory/bios/bio.mhtml?id=63 "> Robert Borosage.

Featuring illuminating and inspiring contributions from Bill Moyers, Barbara Ehrenreich, Benjamin Barber, William Greider, Robert Reich, Danny Goldberg, Joel Rogers, Reps. Jesse L. Jackson and Jan Schakowsky and other leading scholars, thinkers and advocates, NationBooks' Taking Back America offers positive alternatives to the reactionary policies of the http://www.thenation.com/directory/view.mhtml?t=000706 ">Bush Administration.

It's not hard for progressives (or any sane citizen, for that matter) to see that we're in the fight of our lives. George Bush's policies have ravaged our country. Since he took office, America has suffered a staggering decline, moving from prosperity to recession, from peace to war, from record budget surpluses to record deficits. This Administration's legacy is one of http://www.thenation.com/directory/view.mhtml?t=030503 ">preemptive strikes; de-stabilizing tax cuts; the rollback of protection for workers; consumers and the environment; an assault on the rights of women and minorities; and a crony,capitalist corruption devoid of shame.

Progressives have no choice but to rouse themselves, to build the arguments, movements, and institutions needed to turn this country around. It is time to take back America--and build a country that is safer, healthier, better educated, more secure and committed to shared prosperity and opportunity for all. But we must work in smart and coordinated ways. And while many translate this into http://www.thenation.com/directory/view.mhtml?t=00080602 "> electoral terms---and we must defeat Bush in 2004--it is also more than a matter of changing the occupants of the White House. The challenge requires a coherent critique of the conservative ideas that have dominated the past 25 years. It requires bold new vision and vast citizen mobilization to counter the entrenched and growing power of corporate lobbies and restore an America that lives up to its democratic promise. It is a journey not of a year but of a decade or more.

What is hopeful is that on fundamental questions, Bush and the Right are out of tune with the majority of Americans. In area after area, Americans prefer progressive alternatives to the failed policies of the conservative right---investment in health care and education over tax cuts, fair trade over free trade, corporate accountability over deregulation, environmental protection over laissez-faire oversight, defending http://www.thenation.com/directory/view.mhtml?t=00040403 "> Social Security and Medicare over privatizing them, public schools over vouchers, raising the minimum wage over eliminating it. Moreover, civilizing causes like civil rights, reproductive choice and environmental protection are now mainstream values.

It is increasingly clear that Americans face challenges that will never be addressed by the rightwing extremists now in power. Taking Back America features thinkers, writers and strategists intent on laying out an agenda that makes sense for most Americans. It offers policies that are commensurate with the size of the challenge. But it is also filled with strategic insights and good ideas about how to build the capacity to reach out to citizens, to mobilize allies, to identify, recruit, train and support the next generation of leaders.

It is time, as Senator Paul Wellstone said in one of his last speeches, not to duck, not to hide, not to bite our tongues or bide our time. It is time to stand up, to speak out. We need to return to a politics of passion and principle that asserts our values, our ideas and our energy and develop the independent capacity to drive our causes into the political debate and electoral arena.

Click here for more information about Taking Back America.

And sign up for the Campaign for America's Future "Take Back America" conference and Awards Dinner to be held from June 2 to June 4th, in Washington DC. Our book arises largely from last year's extraordinary conference at which over 2,000 progressives gathered to share ideas and strategy. (Click here to watch online highlights.) This year, John Sweeney, Jesse Jackson, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Julian Bond, Gerald McEntee, Kim Gandy, Sen. Jon Corzine, Arianna Huffington and many others are all scheduled to speak. Click here for info and to register.

And, if you're going to be in New York City on May 14 and 15, check out " What We Stand For: Ideas and Values to Take Back America," a conference organized by the Nation Institute and the New Democracy Project featuring many contributors to the book--as well as Paul Krugman, Joe Trippi, Gary Hart, Kevin Phillips, Eliot Spitzer, David Cole, Lori Wallach, Ellen Chesler, Eli Pariser,and Anne-Marie Slaughter.

I'm also heading to Los Angeles this weekend--along with other Nation folk--to participate in the Los Angeles Times' annual Festival of Books. Friday night, I'll be at Santa Monica's Track 16 Gallery for what I anticipate will be a spirited conversation about the state of the nation and The Nation--with nationally syndicated columnist and Nation contributing editor Robert Scheer. Seating is limited.

Meet ALICE

It isn't sexy. In fact, it's not even something that most people even notice. But local government in thousands of counties, cities and towns--with more than 490,000 elected officials distributed across them--have primary responsibility for many of the issues most important to progressives: primary and secondary schools and community colleges, land use and planning, work-force development and job-skills training, water allocation, housing, childcare and child welfare, health services, and welfare, among many others.

Yet most people cannot name their city council or county board members. And progressives have not yet supplied these elected officials with message, policies and programs.

The American Legislative Issue Campaign Exchange (ALICE) is trying to change that. With a goal of identifying, supporting and assisting 10,000 progressive local elected officials, they seek immediate policy gains and passage of dozens, if not hundreds, of model local ordinances by the end of 2005.

With its website as the hub, ALICE is already supplying invaluable weekly updates to more than 7,400 elected officials and activists. Until now, the organization has been supported by Joel Rogers and the Center On Wisconsin Strategy (COWS). Last month, ALICE began looking for foundation money, with a fundraising appeal signed by representatives of more than two dozen national groups--from the Center for Policy Alternatives to Good Jobs First, the AFL-CIO to the Institute For Women's Policy Research (IWPR)--all of whom recognized the value of the effort, and the niche that it would fill.

Building ALICE is a natural part of building the progressive infrastructure. Along with their sheer weight in policy, which is only growing in this age of devolution, city council and county board members, not to mention mayors and county executives, are part of the "farm team" for future federal office. Get them early in their careers, show them the feasibility of a progressive program, and positive political change at the local, much less national, level can be made much easier to achieve.

Certainly the Right recognizes the importance of local politics. Just as it has organized state legislative leaders over the past generation through ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), it intends now to move down to local government. There, we hope, it will find ALICE--its younger, brighter, and decidedly more progressive younger sister.

Attention Must Be Paid

The greatest economic injustice in America isn't corporate malfeasance, anemic job growth or the outsourcing of jobs, as the mainstream media suggests. The biggest scandal is the highway robbery committed against hard-working families who can't make ends meet despite playing by the rules. While the press has chronicled the crimes of Dennis Koslowski, Martha Stewart and Andrew Fastow, it consistently fails to describe the forces shutting workers out of the broad middle-class.

Upward mobility is one of our democracy's great strengths. In George Bush's America, however, opportunity is being steadily eroded. To understand this anti-worker economy, just begin with the minimum wage.

Currently, the federal minimum wage is a paltry $5.15 an hour. It has remained unchanged since 1997. In a family of three, the breadwinner earns $10,712 in annual income, which is almost $5,000 below the federal poverty level. When Washington State raised its minimum wage in 1998 to $7.16 an hour, many full-time workers with families were still living in poverty.

Republicans in Congress couldn't care less about this crisis. Callous, imperious and anti-worker, the Republican Senate leadership recently refused to even vote on a modest minimum wage increase, which could have helped offset the hardships imposed by declining wages and record job losses. When it comes to the struggle to increase the minimum wage and deal with the crisis of poverty in the US, the Senate has essentially become a "non-functioning institution," to quote Senator Edward Kennedy.

A second force driving this train are the glaring inequities in America's tax system--injustices that have further eroded workers' prospects. David Cay Johnston, who covers the tax system for the New York Times, has demonstrated that in recent decades, a growing portion of the tax burden has shifted to working- and middle-class families while the wealthiest Americans have paid fewer taxes.

Armed with lobbyists and campaign contributions, many corporations have successfully avoided paying virtually any federal income tax for years. From 1996 to 2000, 61 percent of businesses paid no federal income taxes whatsoever. Last year, business's share of the federal tax burden dropped to 7.4 percent, down from a high of 32 percent in 1952. And, this week, we learned that under President Bush, the IRS has performed fewer corporate audits and undertaken fewer prosecutions of corporate tax evaders than ever before.

Meanwhile, the US is the only country on earth where wages are being driven down. Johnston says that for the bottom 80 percent of the income bracket, wages have either fallen or remained stagnant. The next ten percent has seen "infinitesimal growth in income"---while the top ten percent has become spectacularly rich. Americans are experiencing the slowest wage growth in 40 years.

The economy is shafting workers in subtler ways as well, as corporations slash benefits and cheat people out of every last dime. The Wall Street Journal reported that Lucent is cutting medical and life insurance benefits for its retirees. Wal-Mart, America's largest employer, is facing legal action for allegedly cheating workers out of overtime pay. Some companies, according to a recent front-page New York Times' article, have even deleted hours from workers' time sheets in order to maximize profits; such illegal doctoring is "far more prevalent than most Americans believe," noted the Times.

Making matters even worse is the problem of spiraling personal debt with many Americans struggling to pay back school loans, maintain car payments and keep credit card bills at bay. In 2001 [the most recent year for which figures are available], seven out of every 1,000 adults declared personal bankruptcy, a share nearly twice as high as in the last business cycle peak in 1989, according to the Economic Policy Institute. As EPI says, "This rising debt is especially troubling in the midst of an ongoing labor market recession, when income is growing slowly at best."

"Even the few new jobs [announced in last month's Labor Department report] come with an asterisk," Senator Kennedy said in a recent speech. "They pay an average of 8,000 dollars less than the jobs lost in the Bush economy," and they frequently offer only part-time hours and few benefits.

The bottom line is that hard-working Americans face hostile economic forces arrayed against them--and the sign over the gateway to economic security now says: CLOSED FOR BUSINESS. Under President Bush's economic stewardship, America's middle-class is quickly becoming a thing of the past. But, as Willy Loman's wife Linda tells her audience in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman: "Attention must be paid!"

President on Probation

"The President is on probation with military voters," says Peter Feaver, professor of Political Science at Duke University and an expert on military-civilian relations.

It may be anecdotal but three stories in last week's newspapers offer a sharp sense of the growing ambivalence military veterans and families feel toward this Administration. The once rock-solid GOP military voting bloc could become a domestic casualty for Bush. And, as the New York Times reports, with a large number of military personnel living in battleground states like Florida, West Virginia and New Mexico, even small changes in military voting patterns could be decisive in November.

With the occupation into its first year, casualties rising daily and no coherent exit plan in sight, Samie Drown--who voted for Bush in 2000 and has a husband in the Army's 101st Airborne Division--told the New York Times that her view of the Administration has completely changed. "My husband is a soldier and his job is to fight for freedom. But after so many months and so many deaths, no one has shown us any weapons of mass destruction or given us an explanation." A mother of four young kids, she continued: "So a lot of military wives are now asking: 'Why? Why did we go to Iraq? The Administration talked a strong story, but a lot of us are kicking our butts about how we voted last time around. Now we're leaning the other way."

Rhonda Wilson, of Astoria, Queens echoed Drown in remarks she made recently to New York Newsday. Her daughter, Shawna Herron, 26, is a cook with the Army's 225th Battalion.

"I don't know why President Bush don't let our children come home," Wilson said. "He would rather see our kids slaughtered. Who's he to say we're sticking it out? This is not our fight. It never was.

"He's busy trying to get himself re-elected and got all our babies over there risking life and limb," Wilson said. "It's wrong, wrong, and somebody needs to let him know it. So many people have lost their kids."

Samie Drown and Rhonda Wilson must be keeping Karl Rove wide awake in the wee hours of the night.

On the same base as Drown's husband in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Brittany Wood, 19, whose stepfather has spent most of the past 18 months in Iraq, says she was a Bush supporter a year ago but she plans to vote for Kerry this November.

"I was glad we were doing this because we need to help other countries fight for freedom, but now lots of people feel there's been a cover-up and it is a lie and we were not told the real reasons for being in Iraq," Ms. Wood says. ""That is making a lot of soldiers and their families think about voting. And for the first time they're thinking about voting Democratic." (A recent CBS News survey found that forty to forty-eight percent of people from "military families" would vote for Kerry.)

And buried in Sunday's Washington Post report on the small ANSWER-organized antiwar demonstration in DC on Saturday was a telling interview with a veteran on holiday who happened upon the demo unexpectedly. "What they're [the protestors] saying is correct," said T.J. Myers--who had recently returned from a year's stint in Iraq after leaving the Army after a seven year hitch. "It's all about money." Myers, who lives in Fort Benning, Georgia and was in Washington on vacation, said "It's my first time in DC, and I have never seen so many homeless people in my life and right near the White House. How can we send [billions] to another country when we have so many people in trouble here?"

Myers's sentiments are shared by groups like Military Families Speak Out, which together with http://www.unitedforpeace.org ">United for Peace and Justice, organized a press conference and walk to the White House on April 14 to deliver the message that it's time to end the occupation.

All this is showing that military families and personnel may be this election's newest swing voters. They certainly aren't Republican stalwarts anymore.

The Unsexy Ballot Initiative

Did you know that voter turnout in states with ballot initiatives is much higher in general elections? This year each additional initiative on the ballot could correspond to an increase in turnout of roughly three to five percent? 

Yet, although initiatives possess the power to draw voters to the ballot booths, their significance is often overshadowed by the sexier and louder parade of election activity created by candidate races. But initiatives shouldn't be flippantly tossed aside this year by candidates and political operatives alike--they certainly haven't been by rightwing organizations that understand the power and potential of ballot measures. Just take a look at my Top Ten list of hot initiatives for the year.

Top Ten Ballot Initiatives in 2004

1. Minimum wage increases in Florida and Nevada.

2. Anti-gay marriage bills in Missouri, Georgia, Utah and Mississippi.

3. Lottery funding for public education in Nevada and Oklahoma.

4. Conservation and open space battles in Arizona and Utah.

5. Ban on nuclear waste dumping in Washington.

6. Defense of Clean Elections in Arizona.

7. Tobacco tax for prescription drugs and health care in Colorado.

8. Defense of affirmative action in Michigan.

9. Progressive tax reform in Colorado.

10. Defense of healthcare insurance in California.

(Caveat: This is a constantly changing environment and although the campaigns mentioned in the list are highly likely to qualify, the initiative landscape won't be fully clear until August.)

And for the larger argument about why progressives need to start looking at 2004 initiatives as opportunities, check out the smart op-ed below by Kristina Wilfore, Executive Director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center.

The Political Opportunity of Ballot Initiatives by Kristina Wilfore

Today, initiatives are abounding in battleground states - largely in order to mobilize a conservative or progressive base, drive wedges into an opposing partisan coalition, and generate contributions to campaigns through what is increasingly considered a soft money loophole in a post BCRA world.

Tort restrictions, the denial of marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, and immigration, are expected to be the hottest issues of the day and will frame the political rhetoric of a variety of campaigns throughout the country. Furthermore, several contentious tax-related ballot measures have been filed as part of a coordinated strategy among groups like Center for a Sound Economy and Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform to shrink government and put Democratic candidates on the hot seat in Maine, Nevada and Washington.

But before progressives wring their hands in anticipation of doom and gloom at the ballot box, let's not forget the political opportunity that lies before us. Whether on defense or offense, ballot initiatives create an opening to define what we stand for and make the other side look as repugnant as they truly are. But this can only be achieved if the organizations and individuals on the left that constitute the fabric of voter engagement vehicles for 2004 start to acknowledge these initiatives, drive resources to them, and develop a viable strategy for victory.

The long-term political effect of even socially divisive wedge issues hasn't been all bad for progressives. After the passage of Proposition 187, the 1994 anti-immigrant initiative spearheaded by Governor Pete Wilson, Latino voters in subsequent elections become politically energized and increasingly hostile to Republican candidates. Measures modeled after Proposition 187 have been filed in Arizona, Nevada and Colorado for 2004. After Proposition 209, the 1996 measure to eliminate affirmative action in California, Republican candidate Dan Lungren received only 20 percent of the Hispanic vote, which at that time accounted for 14 percent of the state's electorate. That same year, Bill Clinton won 73 percent of the Hispanic vote against Bob Dole, who championed an English-only ballot measure. This climate persisted into the 2000 election when Al Gore received 71 percent of the Hispanic vote against George W. Bush, despite the fact that Bush, speaking Spanish, campaigned heavily to win over Hispanic voters.

On the flip side, turnout in Washington state in 1998 increased by as much as four percentage points thanks to the presence of a minimum wage initiative. This increase was even more pronounced among those with poor or inconsistent voting histories. That year, Democrats unexpectedly won 50 percent of the contests for the state House of Representatives and the state Senate switched to a Democratic majority. This is part of the reason why progressive activists in Florida and Nevada are sponsoring minimum wage ballot initiatives of their own. Both measures are being used for the dual purpose of identifying and registering disenfranchised voters and to embed progressive economic policies in the state law. Just imagine, Democratic candidates could have a positive, pro-active economic message to run on in these states rather than defining their fiscal agenda by being against the Bush tax cut.

There is a lot at stake for Democrats in this year's elections. In addition to possessing the power to take back the White House and other hotly contested positions where Republicans currently maintain tenuous control, a slew of state-based issues will hinge on the results of these ballot initiatives. Let's hope the political organizations that have the lion's share of election resources this year don't look at ballot initiatives as a burden, but rather as an opportunity.

A New Populist on the Block

South Dakota has a proud populist tradition. In the late 19th-century, the state's farmers faced plummeting wheat prices and mounting piles of debt at the hands of large Eastern banks. But they responded by forming agrarian alliances to prop up prices, pooling their resources for bulk purchasing and becoming politically active in the People's Party--AKA, the populists.

Now more than a century later, there is a new populist on the block--and her name is Stephanie Herseth. A 33-year-old lawyer, teacher and South Dakota native, Herseth is running in the June 1 special election to fill former Congressman (and convicted felon) Bill Janklow's seat. (She came very close to beating him in 2000.) Raised on her family's fourth-generation farm and ranch 35 miles from Aberdeen, Herseth represents the best of South Dakota's progressive populist traditions.

Her grandfather served as South Dakota's governor from 1959-1961. But it was her grandmother who was the first one to run for public office. As superintendent of schools in Brown County in the 1930s, she helped put her nieces through college, and was elected Secretary of State in the 1970s after her husband died. Herseth's father also spent 20 years in the state legislature.

Herseth, however, might be the most skilled politician in her illustrious clan. Smart and poised, she exudes hope about the state's future and refuses to sling mud at her GOP opponents--which is part of the reason why, according to last week's Zogby Poll, Herseth enjoys a 16-point lead over State Senator http://legis.state.sd.us/sessions/2002/mbrdt149.htm ">Larry Diedrich, her main Republican rival.

The stakes are extraordinarily high. Herseth is pro-choice, and South Dakota, which has never elected a woman to Congress, needs her voice on this issue now more than ever. Last February, South Dakota's rightwing legislature passed a draconian bill banning virtually all abortion procedures even in cases of rape and incest. The governor finally vetoed the bill on technical grounds but the issue remains a controversial flashpoint in the state. One newspaper reporter even described Herseth as "untested, unmarried, no children, for abortion." Emily's List, NARAL and Planned Parenthood have responded by raising contributions and visibility for Herseth's campaign.

A skillful tactician, Herseth seems to be pushing the right buttons. In 2002, she ran a campaign against Janklow in which she encouraged South Dakota's youth to live and work in the state. After a narrow defeat, Herseth, true to her word, remained in South Dakota. She launched the South Dakota Farmers Union Foundation, which promotes agrarian prosperity and educates youth in rural communities. She taught politics at South Dakota's colleges, too.

Most importantly, Herseth has broad appeal in rural South Dakota. In 2002, she criticized agribusiness monopolies for damaging South Dakota's economy. Today, she supports fair trade, defends family farmers and advocates for affordable health care for rural America. She fights for military families on issues like veterans' benefits and better equipment for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a recent interview for the Emily's List newsletter, Herseth also promised to reach out to "Native American voters and increase turnout among younger women. They will be a core of my support in June and November."

As John Nichols noted in an November 4, 2002 Nation piece, Herseth "will provide her party with a desperately needed model for reaching voters in states where it cannot afford to be uncompetitive." And a Herseth victory this June 1st will demonstrate that progressives can win rural districts--and in Tom Daschle's state, where he faces a fierce re-election battle against Rep. John Thune this November.

When Herseth defeats Larry Diedrich this June, she will weaken Tom DeLay's iron grip on the anti-women, Republican-run House of Representatives. If you want to kindle a populist prairie fire, go to www.HersethforCongress.org and make a donation today.

Bush-Free Zone

I don't need to tell anyone reading this blog that this is an election year full of passion, activism and real historical importance.

I've written in this space about the powerful surge of internet "e-activism," which has given ordinary people extraordinary tools to challenge big money and big media. And I've welcomed creative groups like Billionaires for Bush, the Radical Cheerleaders and the Babes Against Bush, which are bringing humor, satire and fun to the struggle to (re)defeat the president.

Now there's a recently launched new group which is giving the term "Bush-Free Zone" a whole new meaning. For a peek at what I mean, check out WomenAgainstBush.org. It's the website of a new political action committee, Running in Heels, started by a twenty-something trade lawyer in Washington, DC.

The site asks people to, "Join Us in Brunching Against Bush, Wine Against Bush and for the really outrageous--Wax Away Bush!" With that rallying cry in mind, the group kicked off its first fundraiser last month by distributing certificates for free bikini waxes and panties with slogans. Two of my favorites--"Bush-Free Zone" and "Kiss Bush Goodbye."

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