Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
Last week, Governor Howard Dean was the front-runner everyone wanted to attack. And he gave his opponents some good reasons. After all, his statement that he wanted to be "the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks" was wrong and stupid. Wrong because the confederate flag is a loathsome symbol, which reopens old wounds and perpetuates old hatreds. And stupid because his statement caricatured the South's white working class.
But Dean was also right politically. As he said in reply to the Reverend Al Sharpton's attack on him, the Democratic Party isn't "going to win in this country anymore as Democrats if we don't have a big tent." It is high time for the Dems to engage in a serious discussion about how to win back working-class white voters in the South. As leading civil rights attorney Connie Rice wrote, in a nuanced defense of Dean, "Without a vision big enough to embrace southern white men--angry or not--this country cannot be diverted from its current path toward corporation-focused, downwardly mobile plutocracy and turned back toward people-focused, upwardly mobile democracy...We need to get beyond fighting over Confederate symbols and get to the critical re-founding of this country for its people."
As our Washington correspondent John Nichols recently reported, polls show that rural Americans are even more concerned than urban voters about access to healthcare, education and job loss under Bush. And with the massive job loss in the South, the Dems need to pump up the populist economic volume to counter the cynical and divisive tactics of the Southern Republican right. The bottom-line should be clear: A populist Democratic nominee fighting the next election on behalf of jobs, family farms, healthcare and education could give George "Herbert Hoover" Bush a real race in a region that the GOP now takes for granted. If the Administration's economic policies continue to destroy the industrial base of the region, the South need not be solid for Bush in 2004.
Then there was the attack on Dean by the other Democratic candidates for his decision to opt out of the presidential public financing system. Progressive candidate Dennis Kucinich, for example, attacked the former Vermont Governor for dealing a serious blow to efforts to keep money from dominating politics.
But aren't Kucinich and other candidates misreading the moment? As several leading campaign finance reformers argue, what's important is that a candidate be true to the spirit of the campaign finance law (i.e., level the playing field, reduce special interest influence, enhance the role of small donors), while facing up to the fact that the system has been wrecked by Bush's decision to opt out.
The McCain-Feingold bill is not working (the doubling of individual contributions to $2,000 has enriched Bush Inc.) and what's relevant, many reformers point out, is not how a candidate operates under the current system but what proposals they offer to repair it. (Dean's proposal for a dramatic overhaul of presidential public financing system---offering a five to one match of relatively small donations--would be a big step in the right direction.)
Dean's decision to opt out--through polling his supporters in a typically savvy display of grassroots engagement (85,000 of the 105,000 people who "voted" through e-mail, internet, telephone or regular mail, supported his decision)--was virtually a foregone conclusion as soon as it became apparent that his fundraising potential could exceed the $45 million cap that comes with accepting public matching funds in the primaries. In an ideal world, no candidate would have to consider opting out of the public financing system, but when one candidate declines it and that candidate's opponent accepts a $45 million spending cap, the playing field is not level. (Bush expects to raise close to $200 million for the general election, more than twice what the campaign spending limits for those receiving matching funds allow.)
It's no secret that many of the other candidates who criticized Dean for opting out would do the same thing if they were in his position. (In fact, John Kerry is said to be strongly leaning toward following Dean's lead, though he has said he would abide by the $45 million spending limit until the Democratic nominee is known--something Dean should also agree to.) And while I admire and respect Kucinich, he is attacking the wrong guy when he accuses Dean of "attempt[ing] to kill public financing" and "taking back America--for the corporations." That guy is Bush, not Dean. If Dean were as dependent on $2,000 corporate check writers as the other leading Democrats and Bush, perhaps Kucinich's charge would have more bite.
In announcing his decision, Dean insisted that he is empowering his army of small donors to defeat "the unabashed actions of this president to thwart our democratic processes with a flood of special interest money...Our campaign has not been talking of campaign finance reform. It has been actual reform. Over 200,000 people have given an average of $77." (The value of small donors was unwittingly revealed by John Kerry's former campaign manager Jim Jordan, who just yesterday lamented that Dean's large base of small donors are "disproportionately liberal," which empowers candidates who appeal to those from "the left side of the spectrum.")
It remains to be seen whether Dean's new--possibly transformative--way of raising funds will free him, as he argued in a November 10 Wall Street Journal Op-ed, "from answering to anyone except the people themselves." (Let's hope it frees him from those like former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin who reportedly told Dean last August that "I can't sell you on Wall Street," unless he reconsidered his position on trade.)
Sure, there are examples of Dean tilting toward corporate demands--both in his years as Vermont Governor and in his current campaign. But the vision of a people-powered campaign fueled by small donors challenging the most capital intensive President in US history is an enticing prospect.
We know there are rifts inside the Bush Administration, but what about the growing rift between Presidents 41 and 43? Even before the Iraq war, the schism between father and son wasn't hard to conceal. The former President (via associates like Brent Scowcroft) clearly disapproved of W's repudiation of traditional conservative internationalism in favor of adventurist neo-con extremism. (Remember Scowcroft's oped of August 2002 in which he argued that preemptive war against Iraq was an unwarranted and divisive distraction from the fight against global terrorism?)
Has Papa Bush decided it's time to inflict a little public humiliation on his son for disregarding wise paternal advice? How else to interpret his decision to give the George Bush Award for Excellence in Public Service to Senator Edward Kennedy--one of his son's most ferocious critics and the same man who denounced the Iraq invasion as a "fraud" that had been "made up in Texas" for political gain? As The Guardian quipped, "The message could only have been clearer if Bush the elder had presented the award to Saddam Hussein himself."
According to sources, Senator Kennedy's speech at the November 7th ceremony, will adroitly praise the father's internationalism--in pointed contrast to the son's unilateralism. But the speech I'd love to hear is President Bush's parental address to his wayward son--laying out what he and his presidential team believe about George W's neocon extremists.
66 Things to Think About When We Watch The Reagans on Showtime.
As anyone reading today's papers knows, CBS (I hereby rename it the Craven Broadcasting System) announced yesterday that it had yanked "The Reagans" from its November lineup after being inundated with accusations from conservatives, led by Nancy Reagan, that it had done a hatchet job on the former president. (Click here to read Matt Bivens' survey of events leading to the docu-drama's cancellation.)
This latest media flap reminds me of the last time Reagan's name generated major controversy--back in 1998 when Washington DC's National Airport was renamed in honor of our 40th president. The Nation's Washington editor, David Corn, was inspired to publish a funny and enlightening editorial, which we've reprinted below.
66 Things to Think About When Flying Into Reagan National Airport by David Corn
The firing of the air traffic controllers, winnable nuclear war, recallable nuclear missiles, trees that cause pollution, Elliott Abrams lying to Congress, ketchup as a vegetable, colluding with Guatemalan thugs, pardons for F.B.I. lawbreakers, voodoo economics, budget deficits, toasts to Ferdinand Marcos, public housing cutbacks, redbaiting the nuclear freeze movement, James Watt.
Getting cozy with Argentine fascist generals, tax credits for segregated schools, disinformation campaigns, "homeless by choice," Manuel Noriega, falling wages, the HUD scandal, air raids on Libya, "constructive engagement" with apartheid South Africa, United States Information Agency blacklists of liberal speakers, attacks on OSHA and workplace safety, the invasion of Grenada, assassination manuals, Nancy's astrologer.
Drug tests, lie detector tests, Fawn Hall, female appointees (8 percent), mining harbors, the S&L scandal, 239 dead U.S. troops in Beirut, Al Haig "in control," silence on AIDS, food-stamp reductions, Debategate, White House shredding, Jonas Savimbi, tax cuts for the rich, "mistakes were made."
Michael Deaver's conviction for influence peddling, Lyn Nofziger's conviction for influence peddling, Caspar Weinberger's five-count indictment, Ed Meese ("You don't have many suspects who are innocent of a crime"), Donald Regan (women don't "understand throw-weights"), education cuts, massacres in El Salvador.
"The bombing begins in five minutes," $640 Pentagon toilet seats, African-American judicial appointees (1.9 percent), Reader's Digest, C.I.A.-sponsored car-bombing in Lebanon (more than eighty civilians killed), 200 officials accused of wrongdoing, William Casey, Iran/contra.
"Facts are stupid things," three-by-five cards, the MX missile, Bitburg, S.D.I., Robert Bork, naps, Teflon.
David Corn, March 2, 1998, The Nation
(And check out Corn's new book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception recently released by Crown Publishers)
I get fundraising solicitations all the time. At work. At home. In the mail. In my in-box. Over the phone. Sometimes over the fax.
I even got a letter from Vice President Dick Cheney subtly suggesting that, for a thousand bucks, I could be a "neighborhood leader." Wonder what my neighbors would say? (He actually started the letter by saying that I must have forgotten to answer the previous letter I got from the President. Sorry, Dick, I was busy writing my weblog exposing your Administration's numerous assaults on women.)
I get these invitations because I give once in awhile. There's no other choice right now--the polluters give, so do the HMOs and pharmaceutical giants, and the K Street crowd. If a progressive stands a chance, he or she's got to have some money. (There's little chance we can compete with corporate wealth, but that doesn't mean we should hamstring good people who are running.) But we shouldn't kid ourselves. If all we do is try to keep up in the money chase we'll never get anywhere. Money-intensive politics in a country where wealth is so unequally distributed will forever tilt against the majority.
That's why we need a comprehensive break from the campaign finance status quo. We need to give candidates who can demonstrate public support an alternative way to run for office without having to rely on deep-pocketed donors. The full public financing systems in place in Maine and Arizona lend hope. (Click here for info on how these systems work.)
Obviously, the partial public financing system, put in place for the primaries a generation ago to prevent the buying of the presidency, is no longer serving its purpose. President Bush has opted again to circumvent its spending limits by foregoing matching funds, and instead turning to corporate America to pay for his re-election.
If you doubt the detrimental effects of putting the White House up for sale, go to Public Citizen's new website . Or, for fun, check out Public Campaign's GeorgeWBuy.com. Bush is on track to raise $200 million or more, double his take from four years ago. If the last few years are any guide, he's going to be delivering even more policy paybacks to all his big donors should he win re-election.
So what is to be done? It's not enough to get in the trenches for whatever Democratic candidate you think has the best shot at beating Bush. We've got to also make sure that by the time 2008 rolls around, the whole presidential campaign finance system is on a far fairer footing.
That means full public funding for candidates once they gather a large number of relatively small contributions--not a never-ending money chase where our clean public dollars are used to match contributions from private givers. And it means making more public money available--say $75 million for the primaries--and giving some of it out earlier and getting rid of the state-by-state spending limits, which everyone evades anyway, and instead distributing the public funds in timed chunks, to force the candidates to spread their spending across the primary calendar. It also means, as is the case in Maine and Arizona, making additional funds available to match big-spending privately financed candidates, since there is no Constitutional right to drown out your opponent with your wallet.
Signing the "Lincoln Call: A Presidency Of, By, and For the People" issued last week by Public Campaign and Public Campaign Action Fund is a step in the right direction. Thousands already have signed on. I have.
The Lincoln Call lays out a vision ("We cannot preach democracy to the world when the leaders of our country are forced to sell access and influence to the highest bidder."). It sets the bar high for any presidential candidate considering his or her own campaign finance reform proposal precisely because it doesn't ask, "What is possible in Washington today?" Rather, the Lincoln Call forces the question, "How do we measure our progress against the ideals of democracy, against the principle of one person, one vote?"
Click here to take the first step. Then get involved. Bird-dog the candidates. Write letters to the editor. Call your local talk-radio host. Make sure they have a good answer to the present campaign finance mess. And keep your eyes on the prize.
Why do people consistently vote against their self-interest? Consider Alabama, where low-income people, who hardly benefit from tax cuts that jeopardize government services, recently voted down a referendum that tried to shift the burden from overtaxed working people to under-taxed business interests.
Alabama's citizens, as a New York Times editorial comment pointed out, voted "for fewer social services, less education, and a shoddier legal system--to become, that is, more like a third-world nation." Through a decision made by its own residents, Alabama is now entrenched at the bottom of the national rankings in government services.
The national landscape isn't much brighter. Is there some plausible explanation for why Americans support spending more on government programs like education and healthcare, express disappointment that the gap between rich and poor has widened, but then give their support to Bush's tax cuts, which disproportionately benefit the super-rich?
Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels' recent report, Homer Gets a Tax Cut: Inequality and Public Policy in the American Mind, offers some answers. As he points out, there is "a good deal of ignorance and uncertainty about the workings of the tax system" and a failure to connect tax cuts to rising inequality, the future tax burden or the availability of public services. The report also reveals how people are bamboozled by political spin and poor factual information offered up by our infotainment-ized media. (For more on the report, see Alan Krueger's Economic Scene," New York Times Business section, October 15).
I think that one reason why people vote against their self-interest is distrust of government. Alabama's low taxes and limited services are, in fact, legacies of this distrust-- fed equally by big business, fake-populists like the late Governor George Wallace and, now, a growing Republican majority.
Indeed, in interviews around the state on the eve of the referendum, voter disgust toward state government was palpable, with most people saying they did not trust legislators to spend taxpayers' money. These fears are fanned by rightwing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, which have worked assiduously to denigrate government. As anti-government ideologues like Grover Norquist see it, lowering taxes and downsizing government are the way to destroy the social safety net. (Norquist, after all, promotes the idea that government should be shrunk to a size where it can be drowned in a bathtub.) Then there are the consequences of signals people receive from politicians who have made an art of lowering expectations of what government can do even faster than they disappoint them.
Progressives have to take into account the historic libertarian, even anti-government, impulses of most Americans, and accept the role of market forces in many social solutions, but we must also challenge the widespread belief that because government has sometimes performed poorly in recent years, it cannot perform at all.
What's heartening is that even after decades of rightwing government bashing, a progressive domestic agenda is in fact quite popular with voters, as we know from polls and surveys. The problem is that Democrats have not coherently or consistently articulated that agenda, while the Republicans have hammered away with a disciplined message about the phony dangers of "big government." (Matt Miller effectively skewers this message in his valuable new book The Two Percent Solution:Fixing America's Problems in Ways that Liberals and Conservatives Can Love.) And a Murdochized, conglomeratized media too often peddles spin --not factual information that might contribute to citizens acting in their self-interest.
Progressives could begin by articulating a coherent, alternative vision of the purpose and meaning of government. Opposition to the tax cuts is all very good, but for what purpose, to do what?
Let's invoke President Lincoln's injunction that government exists to do what individuals cannot do for themselves. Let's challenge the view that we, as a society, cannot do things together and put forward new and compelling ideas about the role of government and how it can improve our lives. Let's reclaim the ability to articulate why government is a social good, that investments in schools, infrastructure, health care and social services are worth making and that everyone should pay their fair share. And to the wealthy who aren't paying their fair share--ask yourself if you aren't better off being prosperous and paying taxes than going down in the first-class cabins of a sinking ship.
State Senator and Deputy Minority Leader Eric Schneiderman is a politician New York Republicans love to hate. As the New York Observer put it: "Mr. Schneiderman's scrappy refusal to observe the traditions of Albany politics may earn him some short-term pain, but it also indicates the gritty stuff out of which New Yorkers mold their favorite politicians."
As one of the state's most important progressive voices on issues of social and economic justice, Schneiderman has led the successful effort to force the Senate to pass major gun control legislation and is a leading advocate for stronger environmental protections, increased funding for our city's schools and mass transit, and the reform of the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. He was also the lead attorney in litigation against the MTA to roll back the fare hike. Most recently, Schneiderman has been one of the most active opponents of the proposed charter revision to eliminate party primaries.
The Op-Ed below is adapted from a longer paper--compiling fifty years of scholarly political science research--showing starkly that "non-partisan" elections favor the elite, the wealthy and the Republican party.
"Nonpartisan" Elections Favor the Wealthy by Eric Schneiderman
The most remarkable thing about the current debate over the proposed Charter Amendment to end party primaries and replace them with "nonpartisan" elections is the fact that the Mayor's Charter Revision Commission has been able to cover up fifty years of academic research showing that such elections favor the elite, the wealthy and the Republican Party.
While the Mayor's Commission has asserted that the academic literature is inconclusive, the overwhelming body of scholarly evidence is to the contrary. In a 1988 publication, Professors Chandler Davidson and Luis Ricardo Fraga summed it up as follows:
"Scholars are virtually unanimous that nonpartisan systems in general disadvantage the poor, the working classes, liberal voters and Democrats. "
In fact, scholars routinely use the term "Republican Advantage" or "Republican Bias" in discussions of the effect of a nonpartisan system. In 1991, Professor Edward Lascher of Harvard University wrote an article titled The Case of the Missing Democrats: Reexamining the 'Republican Advantage' in Nonpartisan Elections, which concluded: "These results dramatically underscore the Republican advantage [in nonpartisan elections] except at very high levels of Democratic voter registration.
The Commission managed to conceal the true record on nonpartisan elections in their report with the crudest kinds of distortions-quoting selectively, presenting quotes out of context, and in one case literally deleting the second half of a sentence they purport to quote because it squarely contradicts the argument they are making.
To attempt to rebut the overwhelming evidence of a Republican advantage in nonpartisan elections, the report relies heavily on only two articles, including a 1986 article by Susan Welch and Timothy Bledsoe. The commission quotes the authors stating that the Republican bias only "surfaced in smaller cities, in those of moderate income and in those with at-large elections."
The obvious inference is that New York does not fit this model. However, the Commission leaves out the very next line after the quoted sentence, which reads that a Republican bias "appears in cities dominated by Democrats but not in competitive or Republican ones." Clearly such a bias towards Republicans would occur in New York City.
Incredibly, the Commission's abuse of the Welch and Bledsoe study pales in comparison to its misrepresentations of Professor Carol A. Cassel's 1986 article, which is cited repeatedly and is the principle source offered to rebut decades of literature establishing that nonpartisan elections favor the wealthy, the elite and Republicans.
The Commission conveniently omits the following statements from Professor Cassel's article:
"It does appear that Republicans, members of the business community, and professionals are elected more frequently in nonpartisan than in partisan systems."
"Partisan elections do appear to provide better access to local office to persons who are not community elites."
The only other significant study cited in the Commission's report is a 1962 paper by Professor Charles Gilbert. Once again, the Commission misrepresents Gilbert's findings. They quote him as stating: "Republicans have been elected in nonpartisan cities only in circumstances in which they might equally have been elected in partisan elections…" In fact, Gilbert's statement goes on to say "or in situations in which their 'Republicanism' was not apparent and in which, therefore, few partisan benefits could accrue." The Commission's proposal would allow Republicans to run without identifying their party affiliation. Clearly, that would constitute a situation in which "their Republicanism was not apparent." It is hard to conceive of a cruder form of deception than cutting off the end of a sentence to change its meaning.
There is no need for New York City to rush into a vote on a Charter reform that will not take effect until 2009 without a full investigation of the research into these issues. We could also use an investigation into the crude misrepresentations in the Commission's report.
Virtually ignored amid boosterish reports of the $13 billion in pledges and grants for Iraq secured by the US at the Madrid conference were the consequences for other impoverished regions. Development officials say that the sums cited by the World Bank and the US as necessary to meet Iraq's needs over four or five years (between $33 and 55 billion) dwarf what other poor, war-torn countries have received in the modern history of aid projects. It could also mean that what aid there is for these countries would effectively dry up.
As economist Jeffrey Sachs recently pointed out, it's crucial that the world development agenda be set by the world, not by the US alone. The Bush Administration obsessively views "every problem through the lens of terror and accordingly considers itself excused from the struggle against poverty, environmental degradation and disease."
As Sachs rightly argues, "The irony is that without solutions to these problems, terrorism is bound to worsen, no matter how many soldiers are thrown at it." More alarming, Sachs continues, "at the same time, the US is starving international initiatives in disease control, development assistance and environmental improvement."
If Iraq, according to World Bank and IMF estimates, needs $55 billion over the next four years for reconstruction, "what do the poorest countries need to keep their people alive and get a foot on to the ladder of economic development?" Sachs asks. "The US champions Iraq's needs while suppressing an honest evaluation of the needs of…dozens of other countries that are in desperate straits."
While making the war on terror the master narrative of its international agenda, the US has allowed other global problems to fester. But it's a crucial moment to make the case that the war on terrorism is only one of many wars and that the battles against AIDS, infant mortality, TB and Malaria and environmental degradation demand as much of the world's attention.
From the valuable listserv, " Democracy Dispatches," a project of Demos--the New York City-based Public Policy and Advocacy organization, which tracks and analyzes democracy issues in the states, comes news of a novel way to boost voter turnout.
The " Voter Reward" initiative in Arizona is designed to motivate people to vote by entering those who have cast ballots into a random drawing with a $1 million jackpot. (Before implementing the program, it would be necessary to change the Arizona law, which currently makes it illegal to pay people to get them to vote.)
Mark Osterloh, who helped pass the Arizona Clean Elections statute, is also the mastermind behind this idea. "Opponents will say we are bribing people to vote," he says. "We are not. What we are doing is rewarding behavior we want to encourage. The 'Voter Reward' program is not bribery; it is capitalism at its best." What's next? A recording contract and chance to sing on TV in return for pulling the lever?
What with Bush and his cronies on the road to raking in an unprecedented $200 million this campaign season, I admit it's hard to focus on small ticket outrages. But it's still worth looking at what's going on in South Carolina, where the state Democratic Party is considering allowing corporations to sponsor its next presidential primary.
It turns out that South Carolina is one of only two states that require the state parties to pay for the primaries, rather than picking up the tab itself. And, according to Democratic chief Joe Erwin, raising the estimated $500,000 in a soft economy has been tough. So, Erwin--a Greenville advertising executive--got the idea of soliciting corporate sponsorships, which he describes as a creative takeoff on the way ballparks sell ads on scoreboards or colleges name buildings after companies.
So, corporations could sponsor get-out-the-vote ads or signs outside polling places. According to the Charlotte Observer, the party originally considered allowing corporate sponsors to put their names on the ballot, but Erwin ruled that out. "It just didn't pass the common-sense test," he said.
Paul Sanford, counsel for the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, said selling space on election materials is probably legal, though he's troubled by the possibility. "I don't really think it's a good thing to commercialize the voting process." As David Donnelly of Campaign Money Watch, adds: "Imagine if South Carolina had the ballot initiative process and there was a health care question before voters, and HMOs and pharmaceutical companies contributed big money to pay for the election, and then they sponsored get-out-the vote campaigns or ran ads at polling places?"
Democracy belongs to all of us. But, with so many public services being privatized--from education and sanitation pick-ups to incarceration and mass transportation, are privatized elections next? Without real reform, it's not hard to imagine that in the not-too-distant future we'll walk into our polling places to find ballots "Brought to you by Wal-Mart".
Can America Afford The Price Of Democracy?
Here's another under-reported story about money and politics. It turns out that the budget crisis has led some states to decide democracy is too expensive to maintain. Citing budget pressures, three states have cancelled their 2004 presidential primaries.
In Colorado, Governor Bill Owens (R) cancelled the primary on March 5th, saving the state $2.2 million. The Republican-controlled Utah legislature followed suit, cancelling the 2004 primary--a measure supported by their Republican Governor. And in Kansas, Democratic Governor Kathleen Sebelius cancelled her state's 2004 primary, saving approximately $1.75 million next year. But critics have pointed out that partisan politics also contributed to these measures because cancellations prevent the field of Democratic candidates from getting much public attention.
As Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano (D) said in vetoing Republican-sponsored legislation to cancel the primary in her state, "Arizona can well afford the price of democracy."
Now, Bush has vowed to sign into law legislation passed yesterday by the Senate that would ban so-called "partial-birth" abortions. As NARAL President Kate Michelman said, "The Senate took its final step toward substituting politicians' judgement for that of a woman, her family, and her doctor...No one should be fooled as to the real intentions of this Bill's sponsors; they want to take away entirely the right to personal privacy and a woman's right to choose."
With Bush in the White House, women's right to choose is in greater danger now than it has been at any time since the Supreme Court issued the Roe V. Wade decision thirty years ago. It is truly, as Senator Barbara Boxer said after passage of the ban, a "very sad day for the women of America." This latest assault on women's reproductive rights is part of a larger war--waged by the Republican Party with Bush as its general.
Click here for a top-ten list of Bush Assaults on Women and Families. And thanks to the many readers who have sent me their own contributions to this list, which I'll be publishing in the coming weeks. (Click here to share your thoughts with me. I'll keep a running tally of Bush assaults as we head into 2004.)