Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
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.)
What with the Bush White House leaking like a sieve these days, it wasn't difficult to obtain a copy of George W.'s secret birthday message to the venerable historian and former Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Sources say that it was delivered by former Kennedy speech-writer and master toastmaker Ted Sorensen at Schlesinger's 85th birthday party at New York's Century Club on October 15th. The small group of revelers included actress Lauren Bacall, Jean Kennedy Smith, former NY Cultural Commissioner Schuyler Chapin and author Philip Howard.
October 15, 2003
From: The Oval Office, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, DC
For: Mr. Arthur Schlesinger, c/o The Century Club
Dear Dr. Schlesinger,
Warmest felicitatitudes from the all-White House.
Sorry this is late, but I could not find your address. It must be out there somewhere with Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, his weapons of mass destruction and the White House leaker--I'm certain they're all out there somewhere.
Karl Rove tells me that you and I have a lot in common.
--That each of us is named for a famous father; although, to tell you the truth (that's a phrase I picked up here in the White House) I don't know your father's name.
--Next, he says each of us served in the White House without ever being elected President.
--I hear you served every president's administration for the last half century, but, unlike Clinton, you were unable to perform between the Bushs'.
--Also, you have written six books, exactly the same number that I have...read.
--When I was a kid, I loved your book on the half-man/half-horse, "The Vital Centaur."
--I also tried to read your book on Kennedy. I got halfway through, about 500 days--and my lips got tired.
But I am most interested in your periodic poll of historians on our greatest presidents. I have no doubts that my administration will go down in history...
Sincerely,George W. Bush
*Sources also tell us that Sorensen is not only a brilliant speechwriter but a masterful writer of birthday toasts.
Pandering of the highest sort was on display last Friday, as President Bush announced that his Administration will "target" Americans who visit Cuba in violation of US laws. In addition to making it much more difficult to visit the country, Bush has instructed the Department of Homeland Security to step up its inspections of travelers and shipments between Cuba and the US. (This is at a time when the department can't even effectively handle security at US ports.)
Bush's policy has nothing to do with our security, or with democratic reforms in Cuba or with common sense. It is designed to win Cuban-American votes and money in the key electoral states of Florida and New Jersey; it is another piece in the "Bashcroft" assault on Americans' civil liberties. It also reveals the power that a handful of unrepresentative reactionary oligarchs in Miami have to restrict the movements of other American citizens.
As Cuba expert Peter Kornbluh told me, "I see this latest Administration act as a sign of its weakness on Cuba, its inability to do much substantive to mollify the hardline crowd in Miami which has been screaming about the fact that intercepted refugees are being repatriated and the Administration is not encouraging hijackers from Cuba, indeed is sending them back...This Administration doesn't want another Mariel boatlift, so it can't ease up on the illegal migration issue. It has little latitude to say it is toughening its stance except to cut back on travel. For domestic political reasons, of course, the White House is curtailing the one thing the US can do to help Cuba evolve--people-to-people contact."
The travel ban is just the latest example of how the decades-old embargo is a failed, hypocritical, inconsistent and self-defeating policy--demeaning to the American people, damaging to the rule of law, harmful to the interests of the Cuban polity, and beneath the dignity of a great country. Who really believes--even those like myself who protested the recent political arrests in Cuba and are concerned about the fate of dissent there--that restricting US citizens from traveling freely to Cuba (when they are free to travel to such nations as North Korea and Iran--both "axis of evil" countries) will produce democratic change in that country? What happened to encouraging the free flow of people, ideas and commerce?
If there is any good news it is that a bipartisan majority in the House understands that America needs to change course. In September, the House of Representatives countered the Administration's crackdown by passing an amendment to end the travel ban to Cuba. It also passed a less sweeping amendment that would restore permits for educational and cultural visits. (Bush has vowed a veto.)
"For more than forty years now, our Cuba policy has had the same effect as beating our head against a wall," says Representative Jeff Flake (Republican-AZ). "By tightening enforcement of the travel ban, we will essentially just be beating it harder. At some point," Flake says, "we need to concede that our current approach has failed and try something new."
Earlier this month, another voice of sanity spoke out against the US's counterproductive embargo. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, architect of policies that dramatically changed his country, and a man who knows something about reforming Communist systems, called for the US to restore exchanges and contacts with Cuba.
In an October 4 Washington Post op-ed, Gorbachev drew a parallel between the Berlin Wall and the wall of the economic embargo imposed by the US on Cuba forty-three years ago. "I urge President Bush to tear down the wall of the embargo now, in order to lay the foundation for a new relationship with Cuba." That act, Gorbachev wrote, "would complete the unfinished business of the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere."
It will be a cold day in hell before this Administration changes course but it's a good issue for one of the Democratic candidates to take off and run with. Many Cuban Americans who traditionally backed punitive measures against Cuba are increasingly calling for dialogue between the two nations. The rightwing Miami Cubans who wag the dog of Florida's twenty-five electoral votes have less power, as polls show that most Cuban Americans (particularly younger ones) would like to take the first steps to heal the wounds of the past forty-three years by an increase in contact between the two nations. (And, the way this Administration's deficit is bleeding social security, Cuba may not be the big issue in Florida in 2004.)
There's also increasing bipartisan (as well as corporate) support for ending travel and commercial restrictions. Calling for a lifting of the embargo would be both politically savvy and the right thing to do.
So far, however, only Dennis Kucinich has come straight out and said he's for an immediate lifting. Dean was against the embargo, but now says it's the wrong time to lift it because we'll look like we're rewarding Castro; Lieberman is firmly pro-embargo; Edwards and Gephardt are against dropping it now; Kerry is in favor of opening up travel but not lifting the embargo; And the Clark campaign says that he needs more time to study the issue. (Neither Sharpton nor Mosely-Braun's campaigns provided information on this issue.)
Every day brings more evidence that this http://www.thenation.com/directory/view.mhtml?t=000706 "> Administration and its rightwing cronies want to unmake everything good about this country, from Head Start to habeas corpus.
Their aim, as our national affairs correspondent William Greider has argued, seems to be to destroy New Deal programs like Social Security and Medicare, unravel our already frayed social safety net and roll back the hard-earned rights and liberties of the 20th century.
Don't believe me? These goals are clearly laid out in the 2002 Republican Party platform of George W's home state of Texas, which calls for abolishing the income tax, wiping out the social security system, repealing the minimum wage, rescinding US membership in the United Nations, and cancelling the War Powers Act. (Click here for full text of this document.)
Remember that this is the platform of the party which was instrumental in electing Bush to the Governorship of Texas. And don't let people tell you it's only a piece of paper. Texas GOP leaders take this document seriously. The Party's Executive Committee has been directed "to strongly consider candidates' support of the platform" when granting financial or other support. And all candidates "for a public or party office" must "read and initial each page of the platform" and sign a statement affirming he/she has read the entire platform."
Particularly troubling, as Ralph Nader pointed out in a letter to Bush on August 2, is the fact that key elements of the document contradict existing federal law, which the President of the United States is sworn to uphold. The media has been virtually silent on this potential political conflict of interest. But don't American citizens have a right to know whether Bush endorses his own state party's extremist stands?