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The Nation

A Healthy Debate?

Dear Ari,

I was provoked enough by the title of your last post and your recent critiques of the Democrats to read onward, expecting some jabs at the hopelessly hobbled party that couldn't even achieve unity on the feeble Levin-Reed amendment yesterday. Instead, I was surprised to find sanguine tributes to the party you recently accused of ducking and covering on the war. Now you applaud them for "openly struggl[ing] to find the right policy," and you describe the rhetorical dodge ball the Democrats played this week as a "healthy debate." Did I miss something?

As you yourself have argued, Democrats have hidden under the false pretense that the American public is divided on the war in order to avoid even broaching an anti-war platform. Yet as you note "voters in the country's top 68 swing districts prefer a Democrat who supports bringing the troops home within a year over one who does not" and "72 percent of American forces serving in Iraq said last February that the US should leave within a year." Never mind Bush's dismal approval ratings and the consistent anti-war sentiment within the party's rank and file, swing voters and our own troops want out of Iraq! Just how wide of an opening do the Democrats need?

That the party has now, apparently, dipped its toe into anti-war waters is hardly cause for cheerleading. Your post echoed The Nation's lead editorial this week applauding Nancy Pelosi's newfound "outspoken opposition" to the war and the Democratic Party's "election-year shift in the right direction." Such praise strikes me as premature and unfounded. Can anyone actually make the case that the Democrats, as a party, have embraced an anti-war position? More the point -- whatever this week's votes symbolized -- it is too little, too late.

In particular, I'm mystified by your characterization of the recent Democratic turn as an honest struggle towards the "right policy" prompted by a "healthy debate." Are we watching and reading the same folks?

Here's Hillary Clinton (who voted for Levin-Reed but against Kerry-Feingold) on withdrawal: "I do not think it is a smart strategy, either, for the President to continue with his open-ended commitment, which I think does not put enough pressure on the new Iraqi government...Nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain. I do not agree that that is in the best interests." As Bob Scheer points out, "this is pure gibberish designed to sound reasonable."

Or take Carl Levin, the designated party spokesman on the war: "Three and a half years into the conflict, we should tell the Iraqis that the American security blanket is not permanent." Impending civil war. Mass violence. Lawlessness. Unemployment. Some "security blanket" the occupation has been.

Or re-read John Kerry's famous op-ed in the NYT: "We want democracy in Iraq, but Iraqis must want it as much as we do. Our valiant soldiers can't bring democracy to Iraq if Iraq's leaders are unwilling themselves to make the compromises that democracy requires." "No American soldier should be sacrificed because Iraqi politicians refuse to resolve their ethnic and political differences."

Kerry and Levin's calls for withdrawal (whatever their differences on a timeline) essentially repeat the administration's line that the war was motivated by salutary intentions, and in the final analysis they lay the blame for the "failure" in Iraq not on U.S. intervention -- but on the Iraqi people. Even Pelosi's framing of the war as a "mistake" and a "failure" dodges the real motives and effects of the occupation (and begs the question, if the US were winning the war, would it still be a mistake?) As Robert Dreyfuss points out today in a provocative article, the Iraq war is neither a mistake nor a failure. It is a deliberate and intended expansion of US hegemony that has largely succeeded. You may quibble with Dreyfuss' analysis of the situation in Iraq, but his argument that the "mistake" and "failure" rhetoric "plays into the notion...that, although the war itself was a 'mistake,' the only rational option for the United States now is to win it anyway" certainly seems an apt description of the ultimate significance of this week's so-called debate.

I'm not naive enough to suggest that a genuine anti-war, anti-imperialist platform from the Democrats would win elections. Indeed given how Republicans have closed ranks on the war, such honesty may result in a spectacular disaster come November (but so may so much dissembling). But let's get real about what the party's saying and hand over the pom-poms to the DNC.

Lieberman Stays the Course With Bush

Senator Joe Lieberman has maintained his status as the Bush administration's favorite Democrat.

Lieberman did not merely vote against the proposal by Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold and Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry to get U.S. troops out of Iraq by next year, the Connecticut Democrat also voted against a vaguely-worded proposal by Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed and Michigan Democrat Carl Levin that urged the Bush administration to start thinking about an exit strategy.

Lieberman was one of just six Democrats who backed the administration's position on both measures. The others were Minnesota's Mark Dayton, who is not seeking reelection this year, and four Democrats who represent Republican-leaning southern and western states: Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, Arkansas's Mark Pryor, Florida's Bill Nelson and Nebraska's Ben Nelson.

Even Republican Lincoln Chafee, who faces an aggressive challenge from a conservative is his party's primary this summer, voted for the Levin-Reed proposal, which called on the president to begin a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq and to submit a long-term exit strategy to Congress.

There was no expectation that Lieberman would back the Kerry-Feingold proposal, which drew just 13 votes -- from its sponsors and Senators Dan Araka and Dan Inouye of Hawaii. Barbara Boxer of California, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Jim Jeffords and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

But there had been speculation that Lieberman would join the vast majority of his fellow Democrats -- including Connecticut colleague Chris Dodd -- in backing the Reed-Levin amendment. During Wednesday's debate on the measures, Lieberman, long the most outspoken Democratic advocate for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, admitted that Iraqis need to be given real responsibility for defending and governing their country.

But, when it came time to vote, the senator was not willing to break with the Bush administration. Instead, saying that he did not want to tie the president's hands, Lieberman joined most Senate Republicans in refusing to provide any check or balance on the administration's warmaking.

There is no mistaking the position that Lieberman has put himself in. Though he represents a state that voted against Bush's election in 2000 and against the president's reelection in 2004, and though Connecticut voters express higher levels of opposition to Bush and his war than voters in most other states, Lieberman has signaled that he will continue to give the administration a blank check to wage exactly the war it wants in Iraq.

Lieberman has wedged himself so firmly in the administration's corner that, during the Senate debate on whether to push for any sort of exit strategy, the Connecticut Democrat was not given floor time by the his own party's leadership. Rather, he was introduced by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, R-Va., who served as the White House's floor manager on the issue. When he spoke Wednesday, Lieberman was the first Democrat to back the president's position.

Warner heaped praise on the Connecticut Democrat, as did right-wing Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, perhaps the most enthusiastic supporter of the war in the Senate.

Having Lieberman on board is important for the Bush administration and its Republican allies, who like to suggest that there is broad support for the president's failed approach to Iraq. It's no small thing, when criticizing Democrats who express sensible concerns about the war, to be able to say: "Even the man Democrats nominated for vice president in 2000 says the president is right to stay the course."

There is no question that Lieberman's stance undercuts attempts -- hapless as they may be -- by Democrats to send clear signals regarding their concerns about a war that a clear majority of Americans now describe as "a mistake."

So who were the "winners" in Thursday's votes? The Bush administration may have gotten a boost from Lieberman, but so too will Ned Lamont, the businessman who is mounting an increasingly powerful anti-war challenge to the senator in Connecticut's August 8 Democratic primary. Before the Senate votes this week, Lamont urged Lieberman to break with the administration, saying that it was time to "build a Democratic coalition to establish and stick to a plan to end the war."

"‘Stay the course' is not a strategy for any real victory, and it is time that the President and Congress recognize that fact and take the steps needed to ensure true safety and security for the region and for America," the challenger argued.

Lamont, who has begun to garner support not just from the netroots but from prominent Democrats in Connecticut -- such as former state party chair George Jepsen -- is over 40 percent in the polls and rising rapidly. And this week's pro-administration votes by Lieberman will only serve to reinforce Lamont's message that Connecticut needs a senator who "stand up for our progressive democratic values."

Sweet Victory: Waging War on Emissions

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen.

If trends continue, 2006 may be remembered as the year the world woke up to the global climate crisis. And Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth--which recently opened nationwide at over 400 theaters--may be credited with the wake-up call. The film continues to soar at the box office, and is projected to eclipse Bowling for Columbine as the third highest grossing documentary of all time (excluding IMAX and concert docs). The tremendous buzz caused by the film has jolted the public consciousness, propelling concerned citizens and Congress into concrete action.

Last week, Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) introduced the Safe Climate Act, a landmark environmental bill that would dramatically reduce heat-trapping emissions directly responsible for global warming. HR 5642 would freeze emissions in 2010 at the 2009 levels and then cut emissions by 2 percent each year beginning in 2011. By 2020, emissions would be lowered by 5 percent per year, making emissions 80 percent lower than 1990 levels by the year 2050. Senators James Jefforts (I-Vt.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are expected to introduce a similar bill in the Senate in coming weeks.

This far-reaching and forward-thinking bill comes at a critical time. On the same day the Safe Climate Act was announced, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) released a study of government data, revealing showed that C02 emissions jumped from 2.9 billion metric tons in 1960 to 5.7 billion in 2001--an increase of 95 percent. The analysis, titled "The Carbon Boom," showed that twenty-eight states more than doubled their carbon dioxide emissions between 1960 and 2001. Texas currently ranks first in emissions, contributing 12 percent of the nation's total. Shocked?

The Safe Climate Act is the latest in a flurry of legislative actions to curb global warming. Nine governors--all leaders in state-based efforts at energy efficiency and increased use of renewables--have embraced the Apollo Alliance's goal of achieving sustainable American energy independence within a decade. Over 200 mayors across the country have created Kyoto-complying standards, investing in cleaner vehicles, cutting dependence on oil and promoting efficient and renewable energy projects. And Maryland recently became the eighth state to join a pact mandating limits on C02 emissions.

"The idea that we would commit to cutting emissions is an important new idea that has not been present in previous climate bills. I think in the last year, there has been a major change in how the public and politicians are looking at global warming. It's much more real than it used to be," says David Doniger, policy director for the Climate Center at the National Resources Defense Counsel (NRDC). "Katrina and Wilma really changed the way people think, and the drumbeat of news and cultural events, culminating in Al Gore's movie, has come at just the right time. It's manifesting itself in the way that political, civic and business leaders are talking about global warming. They see that it can only be stopped if we act soon."

Enough About Division

As an author of numerous articles about Democratic division on Iraq, I have a confession to make. My ears and eyes can only take so much.

Over and over for the past two weeks, as the House and Senate debated the war, we've heard that "Democrats are divided."

So what?

Obviously it would be better politically and substantively if Democrats could unite behind one policy--and that policy specified that we should leave, preferably within a year. But I'd prefer a party that openly struggles to find the right policy over one that blindly follows the President over a cliff.

Take one example: Senator Rick Santorum. In August, Senate challenger Bob Casey accused Santorum of failing to ask "tough questions" about the war. Santorum responded that he had raised concerns, "public and privately." When asked to find an example, Santorum's office admitted "that it cannot locate public statements of the senator questioning the Iraq war." Now Santorum is saying we found WMD's in Iraq!

Such situations are all-too frequent. Only three Republicans in the House voted against their party's rigged resolution expressing the sense that "it is not in the national security interest of the United States to set an arbitrary date for the withdrawal or redeployment of United States Armed Forces from Iraq."

When the Senate votes today on an amendment by Carl Levin and Jack Reed calling on the President to submit a plan for redeployment, expect few, if any, Republicans to jump ship.

So maybe the story should be why so many Republicans continue to mindlessly follow this President and his never-ending war?

The Levin-Reed amendment for the first time unites most Democrats around a call for the phased redeployment of US forces, to begin by the end of the year. Senators John Kerry, Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold believe the US should leave sooner, with a timetable. It's healthy debate.

A lot healthier than what is happening on the other side.

Wal-Mart Helps Defeat Minimum Wage

The great American tragicomedy that is Wal-Mart continues. Last fall, a diverse crew of suckers, ranging from the far-right editorialists at the Wall Street Journal editorial page to yours truly , took seriously CEO Lee Scott's call for a higher federal minimum wage. We speculated on why he was doing that, and whether it was in his company's interests. But there was another possibility we should have considered: that Scott's statement was absolutely meaningless and devoid of content. According to Wake Up Wal-Mart, of the 46 Senators who yesterday voted against raising the minimum wage (all of them Republicans), 42 have received campaign contributions from Wal-Mart. And the Retail Industry Leaders Association, an industry group of which Wal-Mart is the most powerful member, aggressively lobbied to defeat the minimum wage increase.

Then there's the news this morning, from the New York Times, that the company has hired one of its critics, former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach, who has in the past likened Wal-Mart to a "virus" and a "toxin." Perhaps I should send my resume.

"The Single Most Important [Media] Policy Debate"

"This innocuous-looking document initiates the single most important public policy debate that the FCC will tackle this year," Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps explained Wednesday, as the commission issued the "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" that initiates the next big fight over media ownership rules in the United States.

"Don't let its slimness fool you," added Copps. "It means that this Commission has begun to decide on behalf of the American people the future of our media. It means deciding whether or not to accelerate media concentration, step up the loss of local news and change forever the critical role independent newspapers perform for our country."

The commission's decision to issue the notice marks the beginning of an epic battle in the long struggle over whether to loosen ownership rules in a manner that would allow individual media companies to effectively take control of mass communications in cities across the country. But the precise nature of the fight was left unclear by FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who is guiding the rulemaking process.

Martin, a Bush administration appointee who is closely tied to a White House that wants to rewrite media ownership rules in a manner that will allow for a dramatic new wave of consolidation of ownership at the local level, is expected to use the process that began Wednesday to try and advance the agenda of the media conglomerates that in 2003 sought unsuccessfully to eliminate long-standing barriers to media monopoly. In a strategic shift, Martin is not proposing specifics rule changes at the start of the process. Rather, he is inviting comment on the broad issue of media ownership with the goal of then proposing and implementing specific rule changes after the public comment period is finished.

Martin hopes to avoid the public outcry that greeted the last attempt by the FCC to rewrite ownership rules -- and that, ultimately, thwarted the implementation of changes that would have allowed for massive new consolidation of ownership at the local and national levels.

Martin's attempt to confuse the rulemaking process by refusing to outline the rule changes he hopes to implement by the end of the year generated criticism even before Wednesday's FCC meeting finished. "The manner in which the Commission is launching this critical proceeding is totally inadequate," said Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. "It is like submitting a high-school term paper for a Ph.D. thesis. The large media companies wanted, and today they get, a blank check to permit further media consolidation."

Copps and Adelstein, the FCC's stalwart defenders of media diversity, competition and localism, made their concerns known by dissenting in part against Martin's rulemaking initiative. Martin had the votes on the five-member commission -- on which Democrats Copps and Adelstein are outnumbered by the chair and two other Republicans -- to create a process that satisfies the media conglomerates. But he may not be able to deliver the changes that the corporations want.

At the top of the corporate wish list is the elimination of the "cross-ownership" rule that prevents a single company from buying buy up all the daily and weekly newspapers, as many as three television stations, as many as eight radio stations, the cable system and primary internet sites in the same metropolitan area. This "company town" scenario -- known in FCC parlance as "cross-ownership" -- was agreed to by the commission three years ago, despite broad public opposition. Only when Congress and then the courts intervened did the scheme get tripped up.

Martin's new rulemaking process is another attempt to get rid of the FCC's bar on cross-ownership. Yet, even with Martin's attempt to obscure the debate, the likelihood is that opposition to this specific rule change will come through loud and clear during the 120-day public comment period that and in the "half a dozen" public hearings that the chairman anticipates.

"The prohibition against owning a local broadcaster and a local newspaper in the same market is critical to preserving what the Supreme Court called ‘antagonistic sources of news' at the local level," says Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild-CWA, the union that represents newspaper reporters and editors. "While some argue that the onset of digital communications provides many sources for national and international news, the vast majority of Americans get local news from either their local TV stations or their local newspaper. Our members know firsthand that the goal of media consolidation is to gain economic efficiencies. The result is merged news operations and reduced numbers of reporters covering local stories."

Foley's message will be amplified by a broad national campaign to assure that the FCC gets the message that Americans want to maintain media competition in their hometowns.

Unlike in 2003, when opposition to the rule changes proposed by the FCC majority built slowly over a number of months, this time the opposition is already organized. With the announcement of the rulemaking process came the debut of a new StopBigMedia.com coalition that includes Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, the National Council of Churches, the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, Public Citizen, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, the Future of Music Coalition, Free Press and other church, labor, consumer, community and media reform groups.

In addition to challenging moves to rewrite ownership rules to benefit big media companies, the coalition will police the rulemaking process. If Martin continues to manipulate it in a manner that confuses issues and undermines debate, coalition members say that any rule changes the chairman might get approved by the FCC will be challenged in the Congress and the courts.

"The essence of democratic government is to give the people a chance to effectively participate in writing the rules under which they live," says Mark Cooper, the director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, a veteran observer of the regulatory process. "This Notice denies the public the opportunity to comment on the actual rules that will govern the media in America, since no rules are proposed. If the Commission does not allow further comment, the courts should reject this sham."

The likelihood of Congressional intervention remains real, as well. Moments after rulemaking notice was issued, Congressman Maurice Hinchey, the New York Democrat who chairs the Future of Media Caucus, declared that, "In 2003-2004, the FCC ignored the hundreds of thousands of Americans who expressed their opposition to the proposed rules during the public comment period, and only held one public hearing outside of Washington to hear what the public had to say. This was a grave mistake, and one that the Commission should not repeat. The American public has a right to know the full implications of these proposals and they have a right to be heard by the FCC. I will continue using the power of my office to ensure that this is a lengthy, open and transparent process."

Ideally, of course, the FCC will hear enough from the American people during the four-month comment period to recognize that there is no public support for regulatory shifts that help big media to get even bigger. That recognition might make even Kevin Martin -- an ambitious Republican who would like to run for the governorship in his home state of North Carolina -- think twice before using his position of public trust to do the bidding of the communications conglomerates.

Shafting the Working Poor

The GOP just shafted the working people of America. By rejecting an attempt to raise the minimum wage, the Republican-controlled Senate showed that it is far more interested in lining the pockets of its campaign contributors than--as Paul Krugman wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Monday--arriving at a "new New Deal" and working to "rebuild our middle class." The 52-46 vote was eight short of the 60 needed for approval. (The measure drew the support of eight Republicans --four of these are up for re-election in the fall.)

Sen. Edward Kennedy's amendment would have raised the wage from the current $5.15 an hour to $7.25 – the first raise in a decade. "The minimum wage," as economist Gwendolyn Mink, makes clear, is supposed to guarantee an income floor to keep full-time wage-earners out of poverty. But today, the federal minimum wage guarantees abject poverty for workers... nearly $6,000 per year below the federal poverty line for a family of three."

But the vast majority of Republican Senators, several of them millionaires several times over, don't care about poverty or the well-being of their working class constituents, What they really care about is that they're sitting pretty, having voted themselves another raise --to $168,500 --on January 1.

Even the not-exactly-populist Wall Street Journal points out, "While the minimum wage has remained frozen, lawmakers' salaries have risen with annual cost-of-living increases keyed to what is given federal employees. And last week's vote in the House Appropriations Committee followed a floor vote days before in which the House cleared the way for members to get another increase valued at thousands of dollars annually." So, while Congress will soon make close to $170,000 a year, hardworking full-time minimum wage workers make just $10,700 annually.

One group that did important work to end this inequity is the Let Justice Roll coalition--a fast-growing program of more than 70 faith and community groups. The coalition labored mightily to target senators who were critical to passing this legislation and preventing it from being weakened by Republican's bogus charges of "class warfare." (For the true definition of class warfare, check out my Dictionary of Republicanisms. "Class warfare, n.: any attempt to raise the minimum wage").

For millions of families, this callous vote means another day of choosing between rent and health care, putting food in the refrigerator or gas in the car. Meanwhile, a Big Oil CEO makes $37,000 an hour. Want to talk about class warfare?

Prisoners of Uncertainty

The debate over the war in Iraq has from day one been marked by the disingenuousness of GOP talking points.

Al Qaeda is controlling the insurgency.

We're fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them over here.

We're steadily making progress.

Now that we're there we need to finish the job. Etc, etc.

Each assertion false. But perhaps the most repeated bit of conventional wisdom is that Americans are divided about how the US should proceed.

"The American people have mixed feelings about Iraq--where we are, where we're going there," Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democratic supporter of the war, told the Washington Post yesterday. "The American people really understand that it's a complicated question."

It may be complicated, but the American people are not all that conflicted. For months, a clear majority of Americans have advocated that the US set a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. Why is this so hard for elected pols to understand?

As I wrote yesterday, voters in the country's top 68 swing districts prefer a Democrat who supports bringing the troops home within a year over one who does not.

And what about the troops? Well, 72 percent of American forces serving in Iraq said last February that the US should leave within a year.

A similar number of Iraqis feel the same way. Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a prominent Sunni, personally asked President Bush to set a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces when W swooped into the Green Zone last week. Al-Hashimi was acting on the orders of President Jalal Talibani, a close ally of the US.

Maybe it's time for US politicians to listen to the people that elected them and the country they're supposedly fighting to help. Virtually all Republicans and too many Democrats, as former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski said this Spring, have become "prisoners of uncertainty."

Kudos to John Murtha, John Kerry and Russ Feingold. How many more years will we be in Iraq before all of our elected leaders decide to lead?

Not Exactly Supporting the Troops

Here's an interesting political position: Keep U.S. troops in Iraq and signal to the Iraqi government that its O.K. to pardon insurgents who kill Americans.

Even in the frequently surreal debate over this absurd war, that sounds like too warped a position for anyone in Congress to take.

Yet, that's the stance 19 senators took Tuesday.

Florida Senator Bill Nelson proposed a simple amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007. It sought: "To express the sense of Congress that the Government of Iraq should not grant amnesty to persons known to have attacked, killed, or wounded members of the Armed Forces of the United States."

Seventy-nine senators -- all the Democrats who participated in the vote, as well as most of the Republicans -- backed the Nelson amendment.

But 19 senators opposed it. All are Republican supporters of the war, who have voted to keep U.S. troops in Iraq. Yet they voted against a measure putting the Congress on record in opposition to granting amnesty to Iraqis who kill U.S. soldiers.

It would be unfair to suggest that the 19 "no" voters want Americans to die in Iraq, or that they want those deaths to go unpunished. It's just that they are unwilling to provoke an unstable Iraqi government by having the U.S. Congress send such a blunt message.

In other words, the 19 are so committed to making a success of the Iraq imbroglio that they don't want to say or do anything to upset the puppets, er, politicians in Baghdad.

The 19 senators who have given new meaning to the term "pro-war" are:

Wayne Allard of Colorado

Kit Bond of Missouri

Jim Bunning of Kentucky

Conrad Burns of Montana

Tom Coburn of Oklahoma

Thad Cochran of Mississippi

John Cornyn of Texas

Jim DeMint of South Carolina

Mike Enzi of Wyoming

Lindsey Graham of South Carolina

Chuck Hagel of Nebraska

Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma

Jon Kyl of Arizona

Trent Lott of Mississippi

John McCain of Arizona

Jeff Sessions of Alabama

Ted Stevens of Alaska

Craig Thomas of Wyoming

John Warner of Virginia

Notably, Kyl and Burns face serious reelection challenges this year. It will be interesting to watch them try to explain this vote on the campaign trail.