Quantcast

The Nation

An Accountability Moment That Must Not End

There have been far too few accountability moments since Democrats retook control of the U.S. House and Senate in January, 2007.

But one came Thursday, when the House voted 223-32 to hold former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with subpoenas to testify before Congress in relation to the firing of nine United States Attorneys in 2006.

A pair of resolutions -- one that directs the U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C. to bring criminal contempt charges against Bolten and Miers to a grand jury and another that authorizes the House general counsel to bring a civil suit against the White House to settle the question of whether the testimony of Bolten and Miers should be covered by executive privilege -- received the backing of 220 Democrats and three anti-war Republicans (Ron Paul, the renegade presidential candidate from Texas; Wayne Gilchrest, who lost his seat in a Maryland primary Tuesday; and Walter Jones of North Carolina).

The move was opposed by 31 Republicans and one Democrat (Texan Henry Cuellar, who backed Bush for reelection in 2004 and this year backs Hillary Clinton.) At the behest of House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, 163 Republicans were recorded as "not voting." Ten Democrats did the same.

Thursday's House decision was historic, not just for its specific response to the lawlessness of two prominent members of the Bush-Cheney administration but for its broader message. With this action, Congress is beginning to reassert itself as a separate and equal branch of the federal government.

If the imperial presidency is to be ended, however, it will take more than an accountability moment.

The House Judiciary Committee and the House as a whole – which delayed the contempt vote for far too many months because of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's misguided caution about confronting the administration – must now aggressively pursue Miers and Bolten.

As American Freedom Campaign campaigns director Steve Fox correctly notes, "In order for our system of checks and balances to be effective, Congress must have oversight over the executive branch. When Bolten and Miers – with the encouragement of the President – refused to comply with the congressional subpoenas last summer, they were tacitly saying that this oversight power no longer existed. If they are not held in contempt -– and prosecuted in the courts -– our Constitution will have been defiled."

But nothing that is wrong with the Bush-Cheney administration or the federal government began with Miers and Bolten. And no fix will be complete if it stops with them.

The Judiciary Committee must hold to account the president and vice president who encouraged Miers and Bolten to disregard the rule of law.

Miers and Bolten refused to testify not as individuals but as members of an administration that has assaulted the constitutionally-defined system of checks and balances at every turn. They acted always, and in every way, at the behest of President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

It is important to hold the former counsel and the current chief of staff to account. Certainly, as People For the American Way Director of Public Policy Tanya Clay House says, "Congress has a responsibility to enforce its congressional powers, and moving forward with contempt citations is the appropriate response to this administration's stonewalling and arrogance."

But this "appropriate response" must not be seen as an end in itself.

For there to be accountability, more than a moment is required. And more than Miers and Bolten must be held to account for the high crimes and misdemeanors of an administration that has treated the Constitution and the Congress as afterthoughts.

"Members of the Bush administration have spent the last seven years pretending that the law doesn't apply to them," says House, who musters proper passion to add, "Congress has a responsibility to enforce its congressional powers, and moving forward with contempt citations is the appropriate response to this administration's stonewalling and arrogance."

Kroger for AG

With the billions of words being devoted to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, there's likely not much I can add to your understanding of the two Democratic presidential contenders. But there are scores of terrific candidates running local races that matter.

The Progressive Democrats of America do a good job highlighting Congressional candidates worthy of progressive support. What this blog will attempt to do over the coming months is to feature worthy candidates you may not have heard about who are animated by a commitment to social and economic justice and who have a real chance to win a state race.

Up first is John Kroger, running hard in the Oregon Democratic primaries, in a contest that will determine the next state Attorney General. I was introduced to Kroger by a friend who knew him in college and law school and after doing some research I'm convinced that he's someone most Nation readers would find well worth supporting.

These are what he cites as his five major priorities:

**Fight meth aggressively, with more effective enforcement and a new plan for drug treatment.

**Hold every polluter responsible for the damage they cause to our health and our environment.

**Ensure that every single parent in the state gets the child support to which they are entitled.

**Protect consumers and retirees from scam-artists and crooked companies.

**Defend civil rights, a woman's right to choose, and the rights of Oregon crime victims.

His environmental agenda is especially strong focusing on targeting chronic corporate polluters and lobbying for stiffer penalties for environmental infractions. He wants to use the state's criminal laws "to put the worst polluters in jail. That's never been done in the state, and we're going to do it." He's even threatened to partner with environmental organizations and take the federal government to court unless it curbs what he says is the Bush Administration's reckless flouting of our nation's environmental protection, endangered species, and forestry laws.

From everything I've read in the local press and blogs, the Oregon AG's office has not been an aggressive or effective force for law enforcement under previous administrations. In fact, the office seems to have functioned as much as the corporate counsel for the State as an independent office that can bring lawsuits on behalf of the state's people to accomplish important social ends. Kroger's opponent, Greg McPherson, is squarely within this business-as-usual tradition. Kroger says he will bring the full weight of the office to bear on real things that matter to real people and will never be the tool of the local business class.

As my friend wrote me, "when I was a lawyer at Earthjustice in Florida, we partnered with the AG's office in some of these cases [in which lawyers make the case that natural resources like rivers are public trusts, not privately commodities] and it made a world of difference to have the resources of a state office on our side. Thus, to the extent I can help support the creation of an AG office with that kind of vision in another state, I want to. John has set out some areas where he thinks the Oregon AG can be an important force for change, and as he's been very successful in the courtroom in his career thus far, I just think he's going to want to get in the courtroom and fight and win good battles."

Click here to find out more about Kroger and here to help support his good battles.

Obama Talks Tough(er) on Trade to Win Wisconsin

JANESVILLE, Wisconsin -- When I talked with Russ Feingold last week about what the Democratic candidates for president should do to win Tuesday's Wisconsin primary, he suggested that both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton should go to the senator's hometown of Janesville and talk about trade.

Obama got the hint.

On Wednesday, the first full day of a Wisconsin primary campaign that he hopes will solidify his emerging lead over his once "inevitable" rival, the Illinois senator started in Janesville, where he delivered a rebuke to free-trade policies of the Bill Clinton and George Bush eras that sounded a little like a speech Feingold might have delivered.

"We are not standing on the brink of recession due to forces beyond our control. The fallout from the housing crisis that's cost jobs and wiped out savings was not an inevitable part of the business cycle. It was a failure of leadership and imagination in Washington – the culmination of decades of decisions that were made or put off without regard to the realities of a global economy and the growing inequality it's produced," Obama told workers at the General Motors Assembly Plant in the southern Wisconsin city.

"It's a Washington where decades of trade deals like NAFTA and China have been signed with plenty of protections for corporations and their profits, but none for our environment or our workers who've seen factories shut their doors and millions of jobs disappear; workers whose right to organize and unionize has been under assault for the last eight years," continued the senator, who is suddenly very conscious of the need to appeal to working-class voters in Wisconsin and Ohio who have been battered by trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the decision the Clinton administration to extend permanent most-favored-nation training status to China.

In addition to proposing new infrastructure spending designed to "generate nearly 2 million new jobs –- many of them in the construction industry that's been hard hit by this housing crisis," Obama sought to distinguish himself from Clinton on trade.

"It's also time to look to the future and figure out how to make trade work for American workers. I won't stand here and tell you that we can--or should--stop free trade. We can't stop every job from going overseas. But I also won't stand here and accept an America where we do nothing to help American workers who have lost jobs and opportunities because of these trade agreements. And that's a position of mine that doesn't change based on who I'm talking to or the election I'm running in," Obama said, taking a swipe at Clinton. "You know, in the years after her husband signed NAFTA, Senator Clinton would go around talking about how great it was and how many benefits it would bring. Now that she's running for President, she says we need a time-out on trade. No one knows when this time-out will end. Maybe after the election."

Then Obama declared, "(When) I am president, I will not sign another trade agreement unless it has protections for our environment and protections for American workers. And I'll pass the Patriot Employer Act that I've been fighting for ever since I ran for the Senate--we will end the tax breaks for companies who ship our jobs overseas, and we will give those breaks to companies who create good jobs with decent wages right here in America."

This speech represents progress for Obama, who has not up to now been a particularly strong advocate for the fair-trade policies favored by labor and environmental groups and senators such as Wisconsin's Feingold and Ohio's Sherrod Brown. The cautious contender is still a long way from embracing the full agenda of the steel and auto workers union leaders and industrial-state senators and congressmen he has been talking with at some length in recent days. And there will be appropriate skepticism about whether Obama will continue to err on the populist side after Wisconsin and Ohio have finished voting – and after key players such as Feingold, Brown and former candidate John Edwards have endorsed.

But Obama's message at the GM plant was a good one--not just for the workers of Janesville and the other factory towns that will be voting in Wisconsin on Tuesday and Ohio two weeks later, but also for Feingold. The Wisconsin senator says he has not made up his mind regarding the Obama-Clinton contest, but he holds open the prospect of a pre-primary nod to one of the contenders.

Obama wants that nod, and the support of Wisconsin workers who have come to see their senator as a champion in the fight for fair trade.

Obama is not where Feingold is on trade and economic issues--the two recently split on the Peru Free Trade Agreement, with Obama favoring it and Feingold opposing. But the presidential candidate is listening to the Wisconsin senator, and responding. Heck, he was even talking Wednesday about how jobs at the GM plant created the prosperity that caused "homes and businesses (to begin) to sprout up along Milwaukee and Main Streets" in Janesville – avenues not far from where Feingold grew up.

And what of Hillary Clinton? She was in McAllen, Texas, Wednesday morning--headed not for Janesville but for San Antonio.

A Global Arms Race Hidden in Plain Sight

Often what is hidden in our world is so simply because no cares or thinks to look. Yes, a fair amount of attention has recently been given to the staggering new Pentagon budget request, the largest since World War II, that the Bush administration has just submitted to Congress for fiscal year 2009. It comes in at $515.4 billion--a 7.5% hike for an already bloated Pentagon--and that doesn't include all sorts of Defense Department funds that will be stowed away elsewhere (even if in plain sight), nor does it include the couple of hundred billion dollars or more in funds to be appropriated largely via "supplemental" requests for the ongoing military disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even the official budget, however, includes staggering sums for procuring major new weapons systems and for R&D leading to ever more such big-ticket items in the future. (Flash from the budget front! Noah Shachtman of Wired magazine's Danger Room blog reports that the U.S. Air Force swears it can't make due with its mere $144 billion slice of the pie. It's demanding $19 billion more than that. Otherwise how will it pay for all those advanced jet fighters? The U.S. Army is far more modest, requesting a mere $3.9 billion above the massive sum allotted to it.) According to Steve Kosiak, vice president of budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, "The fiscal year 2009 budget may be about as good as it gets for defense contractors." When all is said and done, this will probably be a trillion dollar "defense" budget.

As it happens, military budgets like this have a multiplier effect globally. After all, there's no such thing as a one-nation arms race. It's just that no one thinking about what we're about to feed the Pentagon here pays much attention to such things. Fortunately, John Feffer, an expert on military policy in Asia and co-director of the website Foreign Policy In Focus has been doing just that. In a new piece, "Asia's Hidden Arms Race," he points out that in Northeast Asia, where largely sunny headlines are all about the Six Party Talks over the North Korean nuclear program and the Beijing Olympics, five of the six nations in those talks--the U.S., China, Russia, South Korea, and North Korea--have, in this new century, increased their military budgets by 50% or more. (The sixth Japan spends hefty amounts on its military and is intent on keeping pace.)

Yes, Virginia, there is indeed an arms race underway; it's taking off in Northeast Asia; and it's dangerous. It's good news only for the burgeoning global military-industrial complex. Too bad, no one's paying attention. As Feffer concludes:

 

"Given the sums that would be necessary to address the decommissioning of nuclear weapons, the looming crisis of climate change, and the destabilizing gap between rich and poor, such spending priorities are in themselves a threat to humanity. The world put 37% more into military spending in 2006 than in 1997. If the "peace dividend" that was to follow the end of the Cold War never quite appeared, a decade later the world finds itself burdened with quite the opposite: a genuine peace deficit."

 

Progressive Upsets Compromising Congressman

After the years of fighting from the outside to change politics and policy as the co-founder and first executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence and then as the executive director for the Center for a New Democracy and a key player in the progressive non-profit community, Donna Edwards is headed for a place on the inside.

Edwards upset Maryland Congressman Al Wynn Tuesday in a primary contest that saw union, environmental and progressive activists challenge a Democratic incumbent who had voted to authorize President Bush to attack Iraq, endorsed Dick Cheney's energy bill, sided with corporate donors to gut environmental programs and backed bankruptcy reforms that favored credit card companies over consumers.

That record earned Edwards the enthusiastic support of the Service Employees International Union -- union president Andy Stern wrote a broadly circulated letter on her behalf -- the Sierra Club, the Friends of the Earth PAC, the League of Conservation Voters, Clean Water Action, Emily's List, the National Organization for Women, the Women's Campaign Fund, Progressive Democrats of America, Democracy for America, Progressive Maryland, ACORN PAC and many local groups.

On Tuesday night, Edwards was beating Wynn 59 to 37 percent as the incumbent conceded.

"Today the voters went to the polls looking for change. They selected a new leadership that will finally put the public's interest first," declared Edwards. "I will wake up every morning and ask, ‘What can I do to make a difference in people's lives?'"

Said Progressive Democrats of America national director Tim Carpenter, "Despite Wynn's huge advantages in terms of special interest contributions and insider connections, Donna Edwards marshaled support from what Wynn's campaign dismissed as 'a vast left-wing conspiracy' to beat the most conservative member of the Congressional Black Caucus."

Edwards emerges from the primary as a favorite to win the seat representing a heavily-Democratic district. She'll keep campaigning but the veteran organizer is already talking about what she plans to do to shake up Congress -- still working with her outsider allies but now from the inside.

Donna Edwards: A New Kind of Democrat

 

In 2006, long-time progressive activist and public interest lawyer, Donna Edwards shocked seven-term Congressman Albert Wynn, losing to him by just three points in the Maryland Democratic primary.  In Tuesday's Potomac primary, a more seasoned and well-financed Edwards didn't sneak up on anyone, and she sent the centrist Wynn packing with an inspiring and much needed victory.  In the closing days, Edwards stood strong against personal attacks levied by a desperate Wynn campaign, and supporters such as the League of Conservation Voters, Emily's List, MoveOn, Progressive Democrats of America, and the SEIU helped her to keep the voters focused on the issues.

 

 

As John Nichols recently noted in his excellent article, the Edwards-Wynn primary this year was "a bellwether contest in the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party."  There's a difference between a Democratic Congress and a progressive Democratic Congress.  As Nichols points out, the "cautious and unfocused" 2007 Democratic Congress has lower approval ratings than George Bush--and that's no easy feat.  The strong anti-war and populist message that led to the Blue Wave of 2006 was quickly watered down as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi struggled to keep the caucus united.  The only solution to that struggle?  Replacing corporate-DLC-Blue Dog-centrist Democrats like Wynn--who voted with Bush on the Iraq war, Cheney's energy bill, and with the pharmaceutical industrry--with a true progressive like Edwards.

 

 

 "Donna Edwards is, for us, the prototype of what a new Democrat in the new Democratic majority in Congress ought to look and sound like," Patrick Gaspard, executive vice president of SEIU 1199, told the Washington Post.

 

Gaspard is absolutely right.  Nichols wrote that Democratic Congresses historically pull Democratic presidents to the left, "but Presidents rarely go willingly."  That's why we need a new kind of New Democrat--who, like Edwards, is fearless and true to their progressive values. 

 

 

Donna Edwards is a single mother who has spoken openly of the financial struggles she endured during years without child support.  She's a former executive director for the National Network to End Domestic Violence and also the progressive nonprofit Arca Foundation. She knows how to build a movement through insider-outsider strategies, rather than adopting poll-driven, consultant-given, Inside-the-Beltway positions.

 

 

Edwards's victory gives the progressive movement another key partner and player inside Congress--and a woman, at that.  She will help drive progressive issues into the national debate and campaigns, and forge a movement to make the changes we so desperately need in our nation.  As Edwards told Nichols, "The work progressives do on the outside is essential, but more of us have to be on the inside if we're going to make the Democratic Party the ally we need to change the Congress and the country." 

 

 

Help Stop US Torture

Michael Mukasey may not be sure if waterboarding is torture but most of the rest of the world has no problem seeing this brutal practice for what it is.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, February 13, the Senate will vote on a proposal by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California to prohibit the use of waterboarding and other forms of torture by the CIA and other US agencies. US military forces are already forbidden to use such tortures, and a century ago, when some US soldiers used then against Filipino rebels, the soldiers were tried and convicted in US courts. But the CIA, supported by the Bush Administration, has claimed it is exempt from the law. Please click here to write your Senators immediately imploring them to support Feinstein's legislation.

Shame On Elaine Chao

This just in from Nation Washington Intern Te-Ping Chen:

 

There have been so many egregious dealings emerging out of Bush's cabinet -- the rancid workings of former Interior Secretary, allegations of Thomas White's insider trading -- that perhaps it's not surprising that the tracings of one cabinet member, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, have gone under-scrutinized.

 

But no longer, advocates say. With one year left of the beleaguered Bush Administration, American Rights at Work is hustling to shine light on Chao's record.

A former Bush Pioneer who served on thirteen corporate boards before assuming the role of Secretary of Labor, Chao has overseen some of the Department of Labor's more offensive hires, including Edwin Foulke, Jr., Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health -- the former partner of Jackson Lewis, a law firm perhaps best known for its union-busting and trainings on How to Stay Union-Free.

She's also campaigned tirelessly along with her husband, Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) against the Employee Free Choice Act, worked to roll back mine provision safety, and hired several of her husband's former aides to her staff.

"Elaine Chao's family connections and corporate ties have transformed the Department of Labor into the 'Department of Business,'" said Mary Beth Maxwell, American Rights at Work's executive director.

But this morning, with the launch of their new website attacking the Secretary of Labor -- the only original member of Bush's cabinet -- Elaine Chao's "long honeymoon," says Maxwell, is over.

Among the more comic gems the Web site highlights:

The Labor Secretary's megalomania: at a mine rescue contest in 2003, Chao handed out gold-colored coins, the size of a half-dollar with Chao's bas relief at the center. Since then, Chao has lined the executive offices of the Labor Department's headquarters with 58 pictures of herself and gone on to distribute lanyards and fleece blankets embroidered with her name.

Meanwhile in February 2006, Sen. McConnell earmarked $14.2 million for his lady-love to support the christening of a library wing at the University of Louisville, to be named in honor of Elaine (who never attended the university).

All paid for by America's workers.

 

 

Iraq Divides Clinton and Obama in Electability War

Now that John McCain is the presumptive Republican nominee, the race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton is increasingly focused on who can beat him.

Team Obama is psyched about several hypothetical "head-to-head" surveys – which are often unreliable – that show him faring much better against the hawkish Arizona Senator. The trend is evident in a battery of recent polls, and Obama aides have been blasting reporters with a CNN segment on the results. So Clinton dispatched her top aides to discuss the darker side of electability this week. Pollster Mark Penn made Hillary's case in a conference call and 1,100-word memo, but since current data does not support her electability, he issued predictions instead. His five key points were:

 

The GOP Attack Machine Will Redefine the Democratic Candidate; Hillary Has Withstood That Process.

 

Sen. McCain Will Run on National Security; Hillary Wins That Argument.

Sen. Obama's Negatives Will Rise; Hillary's Are Already Factored In.

The Resiliency of Sen. Obama's Coalition Will Be Tested; Hillary's Coalition Is Stronger.

Current Poll Numbers Don't Tell the Story of What Will Happen: Sen. Obama Routinely Underperforms While Hillary Overperforms. (emphasis added)

 

Plenty of pollsters are known for bluster over data, so maybe Penn should get candor points for not even mentioning numbers in his five points. In a charitable comparison of the campaigns' arguments, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza concludes that "the central difference in the electability appeals by the two campaigns is temporal." You know, like one appeal is based on today's data, and the other is based on a crystal ball. Cillizza continues:

 

The Obama campaign argues that the way to best understand who is the more electable is to look at current polling and past results to see who leads the likely Republican nominee and who is better able to lure crucial independents to the Democratic cause. The present is what matters, says Obama. For Clinton, it's the future that's the issue. Sure, they argue, Obama may be ahead right now, but Republicans have only begun to define him, a process that would strip away much of his independent support and leave him on the losing end of a race against McCain.

 

But wait -- for the vast majority of this campaign, Clinton aides touted her huge lead in past and current polls as proof of her "inevitability." Most independent pollsters and journalists swallowed that line, reporting items like this: "The conclusion drawn by the polling experts appears to be: Forget about Iowa being close, Clinton's inevitable, she's going to be the Democratic nominee." (That's from December.)

So at a minimum, reporters and pollsters must acknowledge that the Clinton Campaign has abandoned the case it pushed for over a year. Instead, it is now asking everyone to trust their predictions over current polls, past polls or their past arguments. We can't just ignore a massive shift in the central political argument for their candidate.

But that doesn't mean they are completely wrong, either.

There are two key issues in the "new" Clinton case: First, their explanation of the huge favorability gap is basically correct, and our political class should digest that reality. Second, their national security argument is wrong, and it offers an arresting reminder of the political and substantive problems with Clinton's foreign policy.

Penn told reporters that Obama's favorability ratings are temporarily inflated:

...time and time again the GOP attack machine redefine[s] the Democratic candidate. Hillary has withstood this process. She's lived through it. The attack machine has been built and honed over decades – it is formidable.. she has withstood this type of attack...

 

From a pure PR perspective, this is undeniably true. Clinton's negative ratings stem from a decade of sustained, presidential campaign level attacks on both her and her family. Obama has yet to receive such attacks -- he did not even face a viable opponent in his Senate race -- and his toughest Right Wing assault so far was an unfunded effort to lie about his Christian faith. If he is the nominee, sure, he could run a unifying campaign drawing a larger majority than Bill Clinton or Jimmy Carter ever built. But his negatives would still rise like every other Democratic nominee in the modern era. If reporters and voters don't get that now, however, and Obama wins the nomination, then get ready for a spate of summer hand-wringing about the "surprising" spike in his negatives.

Then there is the security argument, where the Clinton Campaign reveals it is ready to repeat the mistakes of Kerry 04. On this front, Penn's memo is breathtaking:

Based on what they know of her and her experience, voters believe Hillary is fully ready to be commander in chief. She will be strong and right...The Republicans will not be able to play the national security card against Hillary Clinton, like they are now doing against Senator Obama, and that makes her a fundamentally stronger candidate against John McCain. (emphasis added)

 

Got that? The campaign that "knows the Republican attack machine better than anyone" actually thinks their candidate is magically immune to the GOP's first line of attack.

Of course, either candidate will face a withering assault on security, "patriotism" and the Democratic passion for "protecting of rights of people who want to kill us" -- as a Fox pundit put the question to President Bush this weekend. The key difference is that Clinton is wedded to the "yes-but arguments" that failed Kerry. (The Nation's Ari Berman has more on this today in "Clinton Running Like It's 2002.") Take her Iraq defense in the last debate:

 

I believe that it is abundantly clear that the case that was outlined on behalf of going to the resolution -- not going to war, but going to the resolution -- was a credible case. I was told personally by the White House that they would use the resolution to put the inspectors in. I worked with Senator Levin to make sure we gave them all the intelligence so that we would know what's there. Some people now think that this was a very clear, open-and-shut case. We bombed them for days in 1998 because Saddam Hussein threw out inspectors. We had evidence that they had a lot of bad stuff for a very long time, which we discovered after the first Gulf War. Knowing that he was a megalomaniac, knowing he would not want to compete for attention with Osama bin Laden, there were legitimate concerns about what he might do. So I think I made a reasoned judgment. Unfortunately the person who actually got to execute the policy did not. (emphasis added; transcribed by The New York Times.)

 

So even today, she sees a "credible case" for the war, but she is also against the war. She made a reasoned judgment, but Bush did not. And when facing Iraq criticism, she mentions Osama bin Laden.

Yet for this entire campaign, while many focused on Obama's style and charisma, he advocated the policy and political imperative of challenging the fundamental premises of neoconservative foreign policy. He says it in every stump speech. (It's a huge applause line.) He hammered on the point in his speech on Super Tuesday -- an important choice since the televised address was one of his largest media opportunities to reach new voters:

 

And if I am your nominee, my opponent will not be able to say that I voted for the war in Iraq, because I didn't -- (cheers) -- or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran, because I haven't -- (cheers, applause) -- or that I support the Bush-Cheney doctrine of not talking to leaders we don't like, because I profoundly disagree with that approach. (Cheers, applause.) And he will not be able to say that I wavered on something as fundamental as whether or not it's okay for America to use torture, because it's never okay. That is the choice in this election. (Transcribed by The Federal News Service.)

 

That is not only the most powerful argument for winning -- providing a strong, clear contrast instead of the Democratic doubletalk of 2004 -- it also prioritizes policy leadership on the campaign trail, not blurry pandering. Even apart from Iraq, when is the last time you heard a top Democrat lean in to confront Republicans on torture and Iran, rather discussing the issues on defense?

Most of the time, electability is a parlor game for insiders, who shift from (irrelevant) past polling to the titillating speculation of (even less reliable) projection polling. But this week's debate could be more meaningful, since voters can weigh Clinton's blunt claim that her war record would fare better in November. The Clintons have long eyed McCain warily -- the former president even said he "might be the most electable" Republican in a December interview on ABC. (The clip is still the second most popular item out of 166 videos on McCain's YouTube channel.) And Clinton was probably right.

Now Democrats are girding for a battle against a formidable but flawed political figure. McCain's shortcomings are well known, as an unrelenting advocate of the failed Rumsfeld plan in Iraq and the failed Bush approach to global terror. Given a clear alternative, Americans just might elect someone else.

Update: Nation reader SRJENKINS debunks another line from Penn:

 

Current Poll Numbers Don't Tell the Story of What Will Happen: Sen. Obama Routinely Underperforms While Hillary Overperforms.

 

Is going from the inevitable candidate to almost being out of the race called "overperformance" these days? Let me go check my dictionary. Or going from, "Is this guy serious?" to contender, underperformance?