Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
If you haven't been following the take-no-prisoners approach of the Congressional Republican leadership--ramming through Medicare legislation by threatening reluctant GOP colleagues, barring Democrats from conference committees, keeping roll call open for almost three hours (breaking with the usual fifteen minutes)--Senator Chuck Hagel's (R, Neb) recent remarks convey some sense of the damage being done to our parliamentary system by the rightwing thugs currently running Congress.
"It's almost anything goes," said Senator Hagel, far from a liberal voice, in criticizing his own party's leadership. "I think we're on the edge of something dangerous if we don't turn it around...It's like the Middle East. You just keep ratcheting up the intensity of the conflict."
Representative Nick Smith (R, Mich), who is retiring next year and hopes his son will succeed him, is one of those feeling the heat. Smith--a feisty, independent six-term conservative Congressman--says that the arm-twisting during the Medicare vote was the strongest he has experienced in his twenty-seven years in politics.
The day after the bill squeaked through the House by a vote of 220 to 215, Smith wrote a column for a Michigan newspaper (the Lenawee Connection) detailing the Republican House Leadership's use of what he called "bribes and special deals" to eke out the margin of victory. In a subsequent interview with a Michigan radio station, Smith spoke about being pressured by the "leadership" and said "they" had offered "$100,000 plus" for his son's upcoming campaign before threatening that "some of us are going to work to make sure your son doesn't get to Congress" unless Smith relented and supported the Medicare bill. (Smith voted against the legislation.)
In the last weeks, Smith has declined to specify who allegedly offered the bribes and made the threats, though Representative Gil Gutknecht (R. Minn) recalls Smith saying it was "people from the leadership" who had offered the money. Gutknecht assumed it was someone who controlled a "large leadership PAC, who can raise a few hundred thousand dollars by hosting a few fundraisers."
What is not in dispute--even eight members of the Republican Study Committee (a group of fiscally conservative House lawmakers) agree--is that Smith was pressured in unprecedented ways by a House leadership willing to do whatever was needed to pass the bill.
The Democratic National Committee (and two independent groups that work on ethics issues) have requested a Justice Department investigation into whether the pressure on Smith was not just run-of-the-mill Capitol Hill horse-trading but a violation of federal anti-bribery law. Surprise, surprise--so far, the Justice Department says no decision has been made as to whether to investigate.
If our system worked, and there was some measure of accountability, we'd have a rigorous inquiry into who did what when and key members of the House Republican leadership would resign if Smith's allegations were proven true. The real danger is that if we don't change the way our Congress is being run, it may well be, as Rep. Barney Frank (D, Mass) said after the roll call for the Medicare vote was manipulated by the Republican leadership, "the end of parliamentary democracy as we have known it."
I agreed to go on Bill O'Reilly's Fox News show recently to discuss progressive responses to Bush. I'm always ambivalent about participating in Fox talk shows. As one Nation reader said in a letter lamenting my appearance on the program: "It seems both demeaning to your stature as an actual reporter of fact-based news as well as lending undeserved credibility to the show."
But I also feel compelled to take opportunities to speak to an "unconverted" audience. Click here for the transcript of the program, but also read below for what I was hoping would be possible when I said yes to the booker.
December 1, 2003 (Parallel O'Reilly Factor)**
O'REILLY: All right, Ms. Vanden Heuvel, is this strategy on the left going to succeed?
VANDEN HEUVEL: I hope it does, because if it does, America will be a safer, healthier, better educated, more secure society. Progressives are uniting, thanks to Bush.
O'REILLY: Well, I agree with your last point. Your magazine's up fifty percent, right?
VANDEN HEUVEL: The Nation's circulation is up fifty percent...
O'REILLY: Then why are only twenty percent of Americans liberals?
VANDEN HEUVEL: That's a meaningless statistic. Twenty percent of Americans identify with a label in some poll. The vast majority of people share core liberal values. Reproductive choice. Public education. Healthcare and Social Security without the profit motive. An internationalist foreign policy. Fair wages and fair taxation.
O'REILLY: The polls show that President Bush's approval rating is well over fifty percent.
VANDEN HEUVEL: So what? An approval rating isn't a blanket endorsement of his policies. Those numbers crash and burn when people learn about specifics.
O'REILLY: So you're saying the American people are stupid.
VANDEN HEUVEL: Just the opposite. They're misinformed, and in some cases deceived. I think there should be a marketplace of ideas in this country that reflects a much fuller range of political opinion that we currently see.
VANDEN HEUVEL: I disagree. Something like the New York Times is basically liberal on social issues. But where's the serious discussion of a living wage in this country? Of universal health insurance? Of the fact that the Iraq war violated international law? These are the nuts-and-bolts progressive issues, but you won't hear them in the so-called elite liberal media. Much of the media is elitist because it usually serves corporate interests or follows the official line. And whatever you think of NPR and PBS, they're no match for it, not only because they too depend increasingly on corporate money to survive.
O'REILLY: But you have the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, bashing Bush, saying if we elect a Democrat, all the problems are going to be solved, just like they were under eight years of Mr. Clinton. All the problems were solved, yes.
VANDEN HEUVEL: You're equating the left with the Democratic Party. The Nation was very critical of both Clinton and Gore. We need to reassert the core progressive values that most Americans see as perfectly reasonable, may of which were not ones upheld by Clinton. This is what the Democrats need to do if they want to start winning elections again. But progressives also need to build independent political capacity, inject some passion and principle into our politics. Hell, one out of two eligible voters don't even vote.**The above conversation never happened--and it's unlikely to on Fox TV.
More inside the Beltway spinning at work: Libya's coming clean on WMD is solely the product of Bush's war in Iraq. That's what the Bush Administration wants us to believe. And the Beltway paper of record seems awfully accepting of the Administration's spin. In Sunday's Post, Dana Milbank writes, "It has been a week of sweet vindication for those who promulgated what they call the Bush Doctrine."
Richard Perle scurried to tell Milbank, "It's always been at the heart of the Bush doctrine that a more robust policy would permit us to elicit greater cooperation from adversaries than we'd had in the past when we acquiesced. With the capture of Saddam, the sense that momentum may be with us is very important."
In the Beltway narrative, there's no room for how Libya's decision to permit UN weapons inspectors in confirms that the US can achieve its strategic international goals using tools other than military force--for example, diplomatic, political and economic pressure. Nor is there room for all the work and time numerous European nations have invested in engaging Libya over the last five years. Or of the hard work of the UN Security Council in negotiating a settlement of the Lockerbie case, a resolution which may have had more to do with Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi's desire to reenter the international mainstream than any other single factor.
Nor is there any discussion of why the Administration supports the role of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors in disarming Libya whereas it was so dismissive of the IAEA's work in Iraq. And, how many understand that--as Flynt Leverett, a former Bush Adminstration National Security Council staff member reveals--"Within months after September 11th, we had the Libyans, the Syrians and the Iranians all coming to us saying what can we do [to better relations]? We didn't really engage any of them because we decided to do Iraq. We really squandered two years of capital that will make it harder to apply this model to the hard cases like Iran and Syria."
Libya's agreement to disarm under the watch of international inspectors is a welcome development but it is not as dramatic a turnaround as Bush & Co want us to believe. According to Joseph Cirincone, an arms specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "It's part of a trend that has been underway for ten years--of reforms and trying to reintegrate with Europe, mainly for business reasons."
Let's not allow the Administration to neocon us into believing that Libya's decision is the sole result of Bush's war in Iraq. Instead, let's use Libya's example to call for inspections and reductions of WMD in all countries around the world, including here in the US.
Howard Dean is making the message of the media reform movement part of his campaign--not just calling for overturning the FCC rules but also calling for breaking up existing media conglomerates.
Listen to the front-running candidate on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews on December 1:
Matthews: There are so many things that have been deregulated. Is that a wrong trend and would you reverse it?
Dean: I would reverse it in some areas. First of all, eleven companies in this country control ninety percent of what ordinary people are able to read and watch on their television. That's wrong. We need to have a wide variety of opinions in every community. We don't have that because of Michael Powell and what George Bush has tried to do the FCC.
Matthews: As a public policy, would you bring industrial policy to bear and break up these conglomerations of power?...How about large media enterprises?
Dean: The answer to that is yes. I would say there is too much penetration by single corporations in media markets all over this country. We need locally-owned radio stations. There are only two or three radio stations left in the state of Vermont where you can get local news anymore. The rest of it is read and ripped from the AP.
Matthews: So what are you going to do about it? You're going to be President of the United States, what are you going to do?
Dean: What I'm going to do is appoint people to the FCC that believe democracy depends on getting information from all portions of the political spectrum, not just one.
Matthews: Are you going to break up the giant media enterprises in this country?
Dean: Yes, we're going to break up giant media enterprises. That doesn't mean we're going to break up all of GE. What we're going to say is that media enterprises can't be as big as they are today...To the extent of even having two or three or four outlets in a single community, that kind of information control is not compatible with democracy.
Breaking up media conglomerates is a campaign that millions of Americans--of all political stripes--are embracing. Perhaps the most hopeful example of this is a growing media democracy movement--working to reclaim the airwaves for citizens. Even mainstream media is waking up to the issue. Recently, Lou Dobbs of CNN announced the results of his online poll about media conglomerates. According to his survey, ninety-six percent of those polled said that big media conglomerates should be broken up. Only four percent were happy with them. Maybe this democratic revolution will be televised after all.
Here's what I Sent to The Hill--the DC weekly newspaper--when they asked me to contribute recently to their Punditspeak feature. Their question of the week:
What Should Be the Top Priority for Congress in the Second Session?
Top priority? Get out of town? If not---Do no harm.
Don't adopt more tax cuts that increase inequality and deficits.
Don't adopt an energy bill that lards more subsidies on industry and increases dependence on foreign oil.
If there was chance of a positive agenda--undo the harm already done:
Pass a requirement that Medicare negotiate best price for drugs for seniors (reversing prescription drug benefit bill).
Pass a requirement limiting media consolidation (reversing FCC/omnibus bill).
Reverse labor department regulations stripping workers of overtime.
Looking for serious sweatshop alternatives? Check out NoSweatShop.com, the new virtual union mall.
Claiming to be "the first and only mall in the world where you can't find one stitch that was made in a sweatshop," the venture, created by No Sweat Apparel, received the blessings of a quirky coalition of co-sponsors, including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, Reverend Billy, minister of "The Church of Stop Shopping" and Musicians Against Sweatshops.
As of now, the mall has five tenants, offering everything from jeans and yoga pants to scarves and button-down oxfords. Powell's Bookstore, whose workers are represented by ILWU, sells books, posters and CDs.
"Our goal was to create a one-stop shop for progressive consumers," says mall promoter and No Sweat CEO Adam Neiman. "We wanted a meaningful standard, something that people could have absolute confidence in...We are hearing from a lot of designers looking at creating no sweat lines of handbags, children's clothing, sneakers; all wanting to know where to find acceptable sources. If we have strong holiday sales there will be a lot more outlets here in '04."
While most stores at the mall to date stock only "made in USA", Neiman's outfit, No Sweat Apparel, also carries Canadian union made goods and is working hard to market products from the handful of decent union shops in the developing world. "We think that the only viable response to globalization is to globalize the labor movement" Neiman says.
This holiday season, you can help say no to sweatshops with just a few keystrokes. As NoSweatShop says on its homepage: "When you vote with a dollar it always gets counted."
It's no secret that progressives need to build a stronger political infrastructure if we're going to achieve an enduring majority for positive change in this country. After all, the Right's success in defining politics in the US over the past generation comes in no small measure from its independent institution-building and operational capacities.
As the late Senator Paul Wellstone used to say, if our whole is going to equal the sum of our parts, we need to build a powerful progressive force that recruits and supports the next generation of leaders, at both the grassroots and national level. He had an abiding belief in the importance of building a permanent infrastructure which could identify and train people to run for local, state and national office; apply effective grassroots organizing to electoral politics; provide support for candidates; run ballot initiatives (campaign finance, living wage, the right to organize); offer a vehicle for coordinated issue campaigns; and galvanize a network of media-savvy groups with a broad-based message.
Progressive Majority, and its program, PROPAC, are just what Wellstone had in mind. Led by veteran organizer Gloria Totten, Progressive Majority was launched in 2001 with the sole purpose of electing progressive champions. In their first cycle, they built a nationwide network of tens of thousands of small donors for targeted races. Now, with PROPAC, they are adding a sophisticated plan to recruit, train and support the next generation of Paul Wellstones.
"The time is right for all of the new organizing that is happening on the Left," Totten argues. "George W. Bush and his wrong-headed policies have galvanized us." But, more importantly, she continues, "there is an emerging leadership on the Left that is not willing to continue to be right on the issues and lose elections."
That's where her group's work comes in. Progressive Majority is working closely with many other "Beat Bush" efforts underway and plans to increase those efforts. But, as the only national organization dedicated exclusively to supporting the next generation of candidates who champion a broad progressive economic and social agenda, Progressive Majority is uniquely positioned. And through PROPAC, its newest political program--the name and idea are conscious echoes of Newt Gingrich's GOPAC, the vehicle by which he rose from Congressional backbencher to House Speaker in 14 carefully plotted years leading up to 1994--Totten hopes to raise some $2.6 million over the next year to recruit and train the next generation of progressive candidates at the grassroots level.
"For too long," Totten believes, "progressives have allowed the Party to dominate candidate recruitment. As a result, the Party has drifted to the political right due to the influence of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)." Totten's ambition is nothing less than to design a bold new strategy to redefine progressive electoral politics by transforming Democratic Party candidate recruitment programs.
As Totten sees it, "It's the first step in a long-range project to fill the pipeline with the next generation of progressive elected leaders." PROPAC will also lend critical fundraising support, tapping candidates into a growing network of more than 20,000 small donors and helping them develop their own donor bases. What we won't be, Totten insists,"is another group from Washington that swoops into a community, tells people what to do and then leaves. We are working at the grassroots to develop lasting relationships to continually identify and recruit good progressives to run for office." (PROPAC'S coalition partners include USAction and their local affiliates, Wellstone Action, the Congressional Black Caucus PAC and the PAC for the Hispanic Caucus; they will also work with the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and other labor organizations.)
In the 2004 cycle, PROPAC will be active in five "battleground" states--They have begun work in Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin, and they will add Arizona, Michigan or Florida as funding allows, all of which could swing either way in the Presidential race. The group plans to add five additional target states in 2006 and five more in 2008 until they have a permanent recruitment operation in the most competetive states in the nation. Ultimately, Progressive Majority hopes to elect enough local and statewide candidates--a "farm team"-- to have an impact on the redistricting battles of 2011. "I want candidate recruitment and development to be a permanent part of our politics--not just an election-year priority," Totten says.
With Progressive Majority and PROPAC emerging as savvy players at this crucial time, there's hope that sometime soon a new generation of passionate and principled leaders will drive progressive values into the political debate and the electoral arena.
Click here for more information about Progressive Majority and PROPAC.
"Ann's latest is called 'Treason,' in which she denounces all liberals as traitors, right Ann?" asks the strip's mock radio interviewer.
"Well, it's not just liberals," Ann screeches. "Lots of moderates are traitors, too--as are conservatives who disagree with me. Treason has just gotten completely out of hand lately!"
"Well, as I'm sure you know, Ann, under the US code, treason is a federal crime carrying the death penalty....So I take it you would argue that over half the country should be put to death?"
"Um....wow...That's a tough one," says Ann. "I'm not sure."
"Perhaps you could ask a passing orderly...," suggests the interviewer.
"Good idea. Hold on..."
Hang it up, Ann.
Palm Beach in Baghdad?
"It would be a disaster to have an election whose legitimacy was contested. Nobody wants Palm Beach County in Baghdad," Noah Feldman, a law professor at New York University, who served as a constitutional law adviser to Paul Bremer, recently told the New York Times.
I blamed it on my bleary eyes. After all, it was Friday 8:00am at the tail end of another long week. Was the New York Times's story actually reporting that, "Mr Bush's campaign says it is raising so much money just to remain competitive with what it says is a well-financed liberal political machine."
Whoa! This is the same President who's going to bust all fundraising records--raising over $200 million, even with an uncontested primary race? It's certainly true that unions, wealthy liberals, and others are pouring what resources they have into election 2004. They've correctly anticipated Bush's enormous financial advantage will require an expensive response and that the stakes are extraordinarily high. And Bush's own fundraising is a fraction of the money that will be spent on his behalf--his party will raise far more money than the Democrats and corporate-friendly investment in Bush, Inc. will make its voice heard loudly as well.
Bush as financial underdog? The only question is whether the press corps covering the presidential race will challenge this remarkable spin.
Ted Turner, Feminist?
Bush and Kim Jong Il Tie for Second Place
In a recent poll of 7,500 Europeans, on the eve of his state visit to Britain, George Bush tied with Kim Jong Il of North Korea as the second most dangerous threat to world peace. (Prime Minister http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/middle_east/2001/israel_and_the_pale... ns/profiles/1154622.stm">Ariel Sharon of Israel ranked No. 1)
America is better for Tony Kushner. A self-described "God-believing Jew and a historical materialist socialist humanist agnostic," Kushner--a member of The Nation's editorial board--is a playful partisan, whose sense of humor and a generous, joyful and truthful voice fills his work, including his Pulitzer prize-winning epic play, Angels in America, which premieres this Sunday on HBO.
And The Nation is better for Kushner's contributions over the years, including his award-winning 1994 essay A Socialism of the Skin, his rabble-rousing commencement address to Vassar's 2002 class, A Word to Graduates: Organize! and a scene from his forthcoming play about Laura Bush reading Dostoevsky to dead Iraqi children. (Click here to read past Nation articles from Kushner.)
What has always moved me about Kushner is his sense of humanity and humility. "I am a person of the left," he said in a recent New York Times profile. "But I am uncertain about a great many things; what to do next; where change is coming from; what is the meaning of being left in a world like this?"
And although his writing often describes the outrages of our time ("There is not enough anger for everything that makes me angry," he once said, quoting novelist Sarah Schulman), Kushner retains his joyful and incendiary spirit--refusing to get preachy or earnest. "I believe that the playwright should be a kind of public intellectual, even if only a crackpot intellectual." Kushner once wrote. "Someone who asks her or his thoughts to get up before crowds, on platforms, and entertain, challenge, instruct, annoy, provoke, appall. I'm amused and horrified when I realize that, on occasion, I've been taken seriously. But, of course being taken seriously is my ambition, semi-secretly-and-very-ambivalently held. I enjoy the tension between responsibility and frivolity; it's where my best work comes from."
That abiding belief in personal responsibility (Or, as he puts it, "when you don't act, you act") may explain Kushner's extraordinary outpouring of work in these last years--from poems, criticism, personal essays, political investigations, public addresses, opera librettos, song lyrics and a children's book.
In the last two months alone, he has published two books, with a third on the way: Brundibar, a picture book filled with melodramatic menace and comedy and real-world politial overtones (with illustrations by Maurice Sendak), Wrestling With Zion, an anthology of progressive Jewish-American responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (with his friend the Village Voice writer Alisa Solomon), and Save Your Democratic Citizen Soul!: Rants, Screeds and Other Public Utterances for Midnight in the Republic, a collection of essays due "out before the next election" Kushner promises.
His new play, Caroline or Change, a semi-autobiographical musical about growing up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, has just opened at the Public Theater in New York City to widespread praise. And while working on Brundibar, he wrote the text for The Art of Maurice Sendak, a book-length essay that the award-winning children's book author considers the best appreciation of his work ever written. And check out this slew of other forthcoming collaborations and projects:
*Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy. (The Laura Bush play, in which the First Lady reads the Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov to the ghosts of dead Iraqi children.)
*The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, with a Key to the Scriptures, to open at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 2005.
*A play about Marx and the Jewish Question.
*An adaptation of The Golem.
*Working as an adviser on HBO's version of his play Homebody/Kabul.
*An original screenplay about Eugene O'Neill.
It's hard to feel too bad about the possibilities of the human spirit with Kushner around.