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Ann Coulter's Diabolical Campaign for Clinton

Her critics may dismiss Ann Coulter as a "kooky-con," the craziest of conservatives. But there is nothing nutty about Coulter.

If the right-wing diva appears to be crazy, it is crazy like a fox.

The woman is diabolical. And she has a genius for the doing more damage than mere mortals could hope to inflict.

And her latest gambit is so sly that she has everyone talking -- and just about everyone misreading her sly intent.

Few political realities are more certain than the fact that Coulter hates, hates, hates Hillary Clinton with a passion she and other conservatives will never be able to muster against the softly-bipartisan Barack Obama. Obama is probably more liberal than the former First Lady, and almost certainly more likely to win the presidency if the Democrats nominate him.

But Obama does not have the history with Coulter and the conservative echo chamber that the Clinton's have. Bill Clinton outmaneuvered them even when the GOP took control of the House and Senate. And Hillary Clinton named their "vast right-wing conspiracy."

The disdain is deep, sworn and eternal. Coulter calls Hillary Clinton "pond scum."

But Coulter is making the rounds of right-wing talk-television shows to say she'd back Clinton as the Democratic nominee against Republican John McCain. "She's more conservative that he is," the author and commentator claims. "She will be stronger on the war on terrorism...I will campaign for her if it's McCain."

Of the woman she once accused of committing treason, Coulter now says, "Hillary's gonna be our girl!"

Here's the slanderer of all things Democratic and liberal from last night's "Hannity & Colmes" gabfest on Fox:

ANN COULTER: Hillary is absolutely more conservative. Moreover she lies less than John McCain, she's smarter than John McCain. When she's caught shamelessly lying at least the Clinton's know they've been caught lying. McCain is so stupid he doesn't even know he's been caught.

ALAN COLMES: Go! Could you fill in for me next week? Let me get this straight, would you vote for Hillary Clinton?

COULTER: Yes!

COLMES: You would actually go into a voting booth…

COULTER: If it's close and the candidate is John McCain, because John McCain is not only bad for Republicanism –- which he definitely is -–he's bad for the country.

COLMES: Can I tell you the last thing Hillary Clinton wants, is Ann Coulter's endorsement.

Colmes is, of course, correct.

Coulter despises McCain because he is on the verge of winning the Republican nomination without the help of the paid partisans of the Republican right. She and Rush Limbaugh fear for their franchises.

She is a sly woman this Ann Coulter. And she is not entirely insincere. While she may not really believe that Clinton is more conservative than McCain, she undoubtedly would rather have Clinton as president. That's because Clinton presidency would be a full-employment program for the right-wing attack machine for which she is Cog No. 1. And a McCain presidency, by defining a different and more responsible conservatism, could marginalize Coulter and her kind.

So anything Coulter can say to hurt McCain, she will say. And to suggest that the right's favorite demon, Hillary Clinton, is more credibly conservative than the maverick McCain hurts the senator from Arizona with the Republican base that is only now beginning to warm to him.

But the diabolical part of Coulter's strategy is this: In attacking McCain and endorsing Clinton, the right-wing heroine that the left loves to hate hurts both the Republican she fears and the Democrat she despises.

Ingenuous!

Obama-Clinton? Clinton-Obama?

Politics, it is said, is show business for ugly people. So it only made sense when the Democratic presidential race came to Hollywood, viewers of the last debate before a score of states will hold primaries and caucuses February 5 would be invited to compare the celebrity candidates who remain in the race – Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – with actual celebrities.

Thus, as Obama and Clinton spent inordinate amounts of time parsing the spending formulas for their health care plans during Thursday night's forum in Los Angeles, CNN's cameras crews spent inordinate amounts of time searching out and focusing on George Constanza (actor Jason Alexander), Archie Bunker's son-in-law (actor-turned-director Rob Reiner) the Titanic guy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) and Stevie Wonder.

These "Academy Awards moments" were often more engaging than the actual debate.

Seated just inches from one another, Obama and Clinton chose to host an academic seminar rather than rumble in a "Super Tuesday" wrestling match.

When Wolf Blitzer tried to get the candidates to spar a bit, it didn't really work. While the differed on some particulars of how they had previously answered questions about whether to grant driver's licenses to immigrants, or whose health care plan was more thoroughly compromised, most of their clashes ended with compliments.

"I respect Senator Clinton's record. It's a terrific record."If there was a point of disagreement, it was on the pressing question of who was more like John Edwards.

One day after Edwards quit the race in which he said he represented "the grown-up wing of the Democratic Party," the remaining candidates pursued his endorsement by lavishing so much praise on the former senator from North Carolina that it was hard to remember why he quit the race.

Obama opened his remarks by paying homage to "John Edwards, who did such an outstanding job of elevating the issues of poverty and working people…"

Clinton upped the ante by saying "I'm very grateful for the extraordinary service of John and Elizabeth Edwards…"

When the subject turned to health care, the senator from New York said, "I have put forward a plan similar to what Senator Edwards put forward."

Minutes later, Obama said, "I think that a lot of issues that both Sen. Clinton and I care about will not move forward unless we have increased the kinds of ethics proposal that I passed just last year -- some of the toughest since Watergate -- and that's something that John Edwards and I both talked about repeatedly in this campaign."

Even when Obama and Clinton reviewed their minor differences on questions of how and when to withdraw troops from Iraq, Clinton said, "We're having a wonderful time."

And it almost seemed that the candidates -- who almost came to blows in their last debate before the South Carolina primary ended this one with a hug -- were getting along.

For the first time since this campaign began, it was possible to imagine these two contenders as running-mates.

Clinton came close to saying as much during a discussion about whether her proposal to mandate universal health care coverage or Obama's proposal to expand access might be preferable, the senator from New York said of the senator from Illinois, "We share a lot of the same values… we are trying to work our way through to get to where we need to be and that is to have a united Democratic party…"

But neither Clinton nor Obama is running for vice president just yet. Despite one warm and fuzzy debate, don't think that this race has gone "soft." Simply recognize that Obama and Clinton no longer choose to be seen slinging mud at one another in public. They'll do that via direct mail and negative radio ads as their struggle to secure the nomination hits its critical stage in coming days -- and, if "Super Tuesday" proves inconclusive, coming weeks and months.

Only when one candidate claws his or her way to the top will we get a sense of whether Thursday night's magnanimity was feigned or the start of a beautiful relationship. And, even then, personal ambitions and political calculations make a fall combination of this duo no more likely than a John Kennedy/Lyndon Johnson pairing in 1960 or a Ronald Reagan/George Bush match in 1980.

But even Wolf Blitzer noticed the dynamic.

Referring to the potential for a "dream ticket," the CNN anchor asked, "Would you consider an Obama-Clinton or a Clinton-Obama ticket down the road?"

"Obviously, there's a big difference between the two…" said Obama.

But he did not shoot the speculation down. He merely referred to it as "premature."

"Well," Clinton chipped in, "I have to agree with everything Barack just said."

Why Super Tuesday?

Most people paying any attention know when Super Tuesday is? February 5. But many people have more trouble explaining what the day actually represents and entails and why the day has grown so important.

The youth voter group, Why Tuesday?, established to make election reform an issue that our elected pols can't keep ignoring, has created a new video which helps explain the history of America's crazy primary season, details the interests behind the recent front-loading of the electoral calendar, and offers advice for citizens looking for ways to upgrade US democratic practice.

After watching, check out the Fix the Primaries site for creative solutions to America's electoral dysfunction. The ideas are out there. Our challenge is build a movement sufficiently powerful to push them on to the national agenda.

An Unreasonable Man May Run Again

On the day that John Edwards -- the only remaining Democratic contender whose positions earned praise from Ralph Nader -- quit the presidential race, supporters of the consumer advocate announced the creation of an exploratory committee to prepare a fall bid by Nader for the nation's top job.

Nader's 2000 run for the presidency as the Green Party nominee won 2,883,105 votes (2.74 percent of the popular total) and the enmity of Democrats who claimed the support the left-leaning candidate attracted in Florida and New Hampshire cost Al Gore those states and the presidency.

Nader campaigned again for the presidency again in 2004 as an independent, winning 463,653 votes (0.38 percent).

Even as he has stirred the scorn of political insiders, Nader remains the iconic figure portrayed in the Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan's brilliant documentary, "An Unreasonable Man." He can still attract media attention, draw crowds and stir the political pot.

In the run up to this year's presidential race, Nader has flirted with the Green Party again -- he participated in a mid-January debate among Green candidates in California, where he's on the party's primary ballot -- while also talking about the prospect of making an independent run.

Nader has been absolutely consistent in one thing, however, and that is his rejection of Hillary Clinton, who he dismisses as "a panderer" with "no political fortitude." Before the Iowa caucuses, Nader signed an anti-Clinton letter that asked: "Do you really believe if we replace a bunch of corporate Republicans with a bunch of corporate Democrats, that anything meaningful is going to change?"

"This has to stop. It's that simple," Nader and his allies said of the Clinton candidacy in particular and compromises on the part of the Democratic Party in general.

As for Republican frontrunner John McCain, Nader correctly characterizes the Arizona senator -- who is two years his junior -- as "the candidate of perpetual war."

There's not much question that Nader would be willing to run against Clinton and McCain. Whether he would want to join a race featuring McCain and Barack Obama -- whose candidacy has at least something of the insurgent character that Nader has sought to restore to American politics -- remains to be determined.

Conveniently, Nader will spend the month in which Clinton and Obama resolve their battle for the Democratic nomination exploring whether to mount a 2008 campaign of his own.

Nader's exploratory committee, which is in the process of filing papers with the U.S. Federal Election Commission, has set up a website that declares the veteran battler for consumer and environmental protection is "committed to challenging the corporate powers that have a hammerlock on our political and economic systems."

The committee, made up of Nader stalwarts from past campaigns, has issued a sort of manifesto that declares:

Maybe we're wrong.

Maybe the Democrats and Republicans will nominate Presidential candidates this year who will stand up against the war profiteers, the nuclear industry, the credit card industry, the corporate criminals, big oil, and the drug and health insurance industries.

We doubt it.

But hope springs eternal.

In the meantime, take a few minutes and explore with us an idea.

The idea is this--1,000 citizens in every Congressional district.

Each and every one committed to challenging the corporate powers that have a hammerlock on our political and economic systems.

Organized citizen power facing off against corporate power.

In this election year – 2008.

Instead of spending this election year sitting back and watching the corporate candidates spin their vapid mantras – hope, experience, change.

Instead of spending the year complaining about inertia, exhaustion, and apathy.

Let us instead weigh the possibility of pulling together half a million dedicated citizens collectively rising up off our couches and organizing a ground force in every Congressional district in the country.

A ground force of citizens who are informed, committed, tenacious advocates for a just future.

This is what we are contemplating.

Something new.

Something big.

Something bold.

Something that works.

Something that will prod young and old alike.

To join in a mass push back against the corporate powers that are dictating our future.

No one person can get us there.

But one person is ideally suited to lead this grassroots force – if he chooses to do so and runs as the citizens' candidate for President in 2008.

And that one person is Ralph Nader.

If Obama Is JFK, Who Is Hillary?

Ted Kennedy's statement Monday that Obama was like JFK set off a storm of historical analogies. Hillary's side fired back that she is like Bobby Kennedy--at least that's what three of Bobby's kids said the next day: "Like our father, Hillary has devoted her life to embracing and including those on the bottom rung of society's ladder," Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Kerry Kennedy declared.

Hillary herself has claimed not so long ago that SHE is our JFK: "A lot of people back then [1960] said, 'America will never elect a Catholic as president,' " she said in New Hampshire last March. "When people tell me 'a woman can never be president,' I say, we'll never know unless we try." And of course she also compared herself to LBJ, whose political skills, she said, made it possible for him to sign into law what she called "Dr. King's dream."

Nicholas Kristoff of the New York Times compared Obama to Lincoln (both were undistinguished newcomers when they ran for president). Paul Krugman of the New York Times compared Hillary to Grover Cleveland (both were conservative Democrats in a Republican era). Biographer Joseph Ellis compared Obama to Thomas Jefferson (both spoke in favor of nonpartisan politics).

Sorting out these claims is, of course, a job for professionals--professional historians. They too are partisans. The only organized political group of historians in this campaign in Historians for Obama, which includes Joyce Appleby, former president of the American Historical Association; Robert Dallek, the award-wining presidential biographer; David Thelen, former editor of the Journal of American History; and the Pulitzer-prize winning Civil War historian James McPherson.

Their statement made some sweeping analogies: "Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and kept the nation united; Franklin D. Roosevelt persuaded Americans to embrace Social Security and more democratic workplaces; John F. Kennedy advanced civil rights and an anti-poverty program. Barack Obama has the potential to be that kind of president."

On the other side, there is no historians-for-Hillary organization, but there is Sean Wilentz--the Princeton professor and award-winning author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, who testified for the defense at the Clinton impeachment hearing. He recently took on the key Obama analogies in an Los Angeles Times op-ed. First, he said, Obama is no JFK: "By the time he ran for president, JFK had served three terms in the House and twice won election to the Senate," Wilentz wrote. "Before that, he was, of course, a decorated veteran of World War II, having fought with valor in the South Pacific."

And to compare Obama to Lincoln, Wilentz says, is "absurd": "Yes, Lincoln spent only two years in the House," but in 1858, when he ran unsuccessfully for the Senate, Lincoln "engaged with Stephen A. Douglas in the nation's most important debates over slavery before the Civil War."

On the other hand, Robert Dallek, author of biographies of LBJ and Kennedy, has explained that the appeal of JFK in 1960 has clear parallels to Obama's campaign today: "it's the aura, it's the rhetoric, the youthfulness, the charisma," he told the Chicago Tribune blog "The Swamp."

Then there is the Lincoln analogy. Eric Foner, the former American Historical Association president and author of Reconstruction, points out that, in 1860, the Republicans had to choose between two candidates: one who claimed decades of experience in politics, the other with much less, who won support because his oratory was so inspiring and he was deemed more electable. In 1860, the candidate with experience lost the nomination to Lincoln; he was William H. Seward. That makes it fair to say that Hillary could be our Seward.

With a Last Call to Action, John Edwards Will Exit the Race

John Edwards went back on Wednesday to New Orleans, the city where a year ago he launched a populist campaign to make poverty an issue in American politics.

He did not arrive in triumph, but he certainly did not look or sound like a defeated candidate.

The news of the day -- always blunt, and as such imprecise -- was that Edwards ended his formal run for the Democratic presidential nomination where it began -- in the impoverished city that was so battered both by Hurricane Katrina and the official neglect that came before and after that mighty storm.

And it was true that Edwards had suspended his candidacy.

But his campaign was far from finished, as the former senator from North Carolina made clear.

"Do not turn away from these great struggles before us. Do not give up on the causes that we have fought for," he told supporters who were still waving "John Edwards for President" posters. "Do not walk away from what's possible, because it's time for all of us, all of us together, to make the two Americas one."

Promising to continue pressing the Democratic party to embrace economic justice themes, he told cheering supporters that, "We must do better if we want to live up to the promise of this country we love so much."

The suddenly former candidate admitted that he was torn about his decision, suggesting that when backers in Minnesota had told him to keep fighting, he "almost reconsidered."

The fact is that Edwards did not want to abandon the presidential race. He kept up an intense schedule of events in "Super Tuesday" states even after he secured credible but disappointing third-place finish in his native state of South Carolina's Saturday primary.

But money was short -- too short for the media buys necessary to compete in the television "air wars" that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are preparing to reach voters in the score of states that will vote February 5. Media attention was scant, and usually focused on the question of why he was staying in the race. And even sympathetic Democrats were starting to abandon Edwards -- who is not expected to make an endorsement today but who never made much secret about his differences with the Clinton camp -- for a surging Obama campaign.

Yet, Edwards pressed on in the days after Obama's big win in South Carolina.

As late as Tuesday night, when Edwards won 14 percent of the vote and carried ten counties in Florida's Democratic "beauty contest" primary, the former North Carolina senator was still on the trail. More than 1,000 union members and activists rallied for his populist call to action at a Carpenters union hall in St. Paul.

Edwards recalled the legacy of his late colleague in the Senate, Paul Wellstone. The Minnesota crowd cheered the memory of one Democrat who made fighting poverty central to his politics and the hope that another Democrat might yet carry the fight forward.

But Edwards recognized it was no longer possible to do that as a third-wheel presidential candidate.

So instead of flying from St. Paul to Fargo for a scheduled event anticipating the February 5 North Dakota caucuses, Edwards and his team turned their plane toward New Orleans.

In the city where he began running, Edwards announced that, "It is time for me to step aside so that history can blaze its path."

That was a reference to the virtual certainty that, with his exit, Democrats will now nominate the party's first woman or first African-American candidate for president. But both Clinton and Obama made it clear that John Edwards, or at the very least the issues he raised, will be a part of that history.

"At a time when our politics is too focused on who's up and who's down, he made a nation focus again on who matters -- the New Orleans child without a home, the West Virginia miner without a job, the families who live in that other America that is not seen or heard or talked about by our leaders in Washington," declared Obama on Wednesday.

Clinton said, "John Edwards ended his campaign today in the same way he started it -- by standing with the people who are too often left behind and nearly always left out of our national debate."

But after that formality, the speech played out as what it had been billed: an anti-poverty address. Some of the lines were repeats from the stump speech. But, with their champion leaving the field of battle, there was a new poignancy to Edwards promise to the poor, the homeless, the unemployed and those without health care that "we will not forget you... we will not allow you to be forgotten."

As he spoke, it became clear that, even if the Edwards candidacy is done, the Edwards campaign will continue. By virtue of the warmth toward him and his message that was so in evidence Wednesday, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate remains in a position to influence his party and his country to recognize and address the painful reality that there are "two Americas -- one rich and one poor."

It is, says Edwards, "the mission of my life."

For Edwards, The Good Fight Is Over

It's been an uphill climb all the way: And today, John Edwards signaled he's done.

Outspent by his opponents and crowded out of the media spotlight by the drama of the Clinton/Obama rivalry, the former senator from North Carolina calls it quits atoday at a New Orleans event billed as a speech on poverty.

Edwards has not won a single contest in the Democratic race for president, and lags behind front-runners Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in public opinion polls.

Today, he's headed to New Orleans with his wife and three children for an appearance at the city's Musicians' Village, a Habitat for Humanity project providing housing for the city's displaced artists and performers.

New Orleans, the glaring symbol of how the poor have been marginalized in America over the past eight years, is a fitting place for Edwards to end his campaign for the presidency pegged to economic justice.

The Associated Press is reporting Edwards will not immediately endorse either candidate in what is now a two-person race. But now, all speculation will be on who he'll throw his support to. Given the levels of hostility between the Clinton and Obama camps, not only has the race lost a strong progressive voice, but a person of civility and passion.

Thanks, John.

 

McCain Wins -- Without Most Conservatives

John McCain won a personal victory in Florida Tuesday night.

But he still has not won the Republican ideological battle that will continue through Super Tuesday and perhaps deep into February and March.

After the bitterest Republican race since the 2000 South Carolina contest he lost to George W. Bush, McCain prevailed in the Florida Republican primary--and with it the frontrunner status that just six months ago seemed unachievable for the campaign of a maverick who has never been trusted by the party's base.

Florida gave McCain a clear if hardly overwhelming victory over his chief rival for the GOP nod, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. With most of the votes counted, McCain had 36 percent of the vote. Romney had 31 percent. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who focused his quest for the presidency on Tuesday's primary, finished with a dismal 15 percent. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who is essentially out of money but can still stir evangelical fervor, was just behind with 14 percent. Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the anti-war libertarian who finished a credible second in the Nevada caucuses, was winning just 3 percent of the Florida vote.

That was the win McCain needed – and with it all of the 57 delegates awarded in the winner-take-all contest.

But it was not the win McCain wanted.

The senator Florida won on the basis of the strong support he received from the state's relatively large blocs of moderate and liberal Republican primary voters.

Unfortunately for McCain, liberals are most certainly not the definitional players in the Republican nominating process.

Nor are moderates the heart-and-soul of the Republican Party. Conservatives are. And McCain is still struggling to win their loyalty. Indeed, even now, former Secretary of Education Bill Bennett says, "The anger and bitterness toward John McCain is extraordinary among conservatives."

That's strong language.

But the fact is that McCain is winning the race for the Republican nomination without the support of the most conservatives.

He did not get it in New Hampshire, where he won the critical first-in-the-nation primary contest with the votes of moderate independents.

He did not get it in South Carolina, where he won the traditionally definitional first southern primary after conservative voters split among Romney, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson.

And he did not get it in Florida, where self-described "conservatives" told exit pollsters that McCain was not their first choice.

Conservatives made up 62 percent of the Republican primary voters in Florida, and they favored Romney over McCain by a 37-27 margin. (The numbers were even more lopsided among social conservatives. Among the 52 percent of Florida primary voters who say abortion should be illegal, Romney won with 35 percent to 27 percent for McCain and 23 percent for Huckabee. Among the 43 percent who said abortion should be legal, McCain got 43 percent to 26 percent for Romney and 20 percent for Giuliani.)

McCain secured his win only because 28 percent of Republican primary voters were moderates, and they favored him 40-22 over Romney.

McCain did even better among the 11 percent of Republican primary voters who, remarkably enough, identified themselves as liberals.

They favored the Arizona senator 46-25 over Romney.

But there are not that many more Republican primaries where self-described "liberals" are going to be a measurable -- let alone meaningful -- demographic.

That's why, while McCain was smiling Tuesday night, so was Romney.

As the Giuliani campaign fades to grey – even if "America's mayor" has not yet formally quit, he was talking about his presidential run in the past tense last night – McCain can hope to pick up a good portion of the moderate vote that went to 9-11 candidate. (He's expected to pick up Giuliani's endorsement in California on Wednesday.)

But, if Huckabee slides further, Romney will benefit.

So it was that McCain's Florida victory speech contained a near-funereal reference to "my dear friend Rudy Giuliani." The Arizona senator could barely wait to start throwing the dirt on the former New York mayor's political grave.

At the same time, McCain hailed the "good humor and grace" of the Huckabee campaign, leaving no doubt that he very much hopes it will continue.

Such are the vagaries of the Republican race. John McCain is ahead, and he might just win the nomination. But he has yet to win 40 percent of the vote in a single primary or caucus. McCain has taken the lead because conservatives have been deeply divided – so deeply divided that they may cede their party's nomination to a maverick they do not trust and they do not currently support.

McCain may yet close the deal. But to do so, as Bill Bennett says, "John McCain still has to talk to conservatives."

Slavery in the Union

"We must ensure that all life is treated with the dignity it deserves," President Bush declared during his final State of the Union address. He then segued into a call to ban human cloning. He didn't talk about dignity in terms of ravaged pensions, working longer hours for lower wages, and the loss of healthcare and other benefits. He didn't talk about dignity in terms of the rise in poverty – 37 million Americans, one in eight citizens now living below the poverty line in the wealthiest nation in the world. And he certainly didn't talk about dignity when it comes to migrant workers in Immokalee, Florida where – as Senator Bernie Sanders told me just days before Bush's SOTU – "the norm is a disaster, and the extreme is slavery."

These farmworkers pick the tomatoes many Americans eat at McDonald's, Taco Bell, Burger King and other fast food chains. They are paid 45 cents for a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes. It's grueling work, as Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser noted recently in a New York Times op-ed: "During a typical day each migrant picks, carries and unloads two tons of tomatoes." For that two tons the worker can expect about $50, and annual wages of $10,000-$14,000. Wages have been stagnant for more than two decades. Two weeks ago, six people were indicted on slavery charges for beating workers, chaining and locking them inside U-haul trucks, and threatening physical harm if the workers left their jobs. This is far from a rare occurrence, as the Miami Herald wrote, "… farm crew slavery stories and the brutal exploitation of undocumented workers have long since lost their shock value in Florida."

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) – a community-based worker organization – has "exposed a half-dozen slavery cases" that helped trigger the freeing of more than 1,000 workers, and also advocated for better wages, living conditions, respect from the industry, and an end to indentured servitude. CIW recently scored critical victories in negotiating a penny-per-pound surcharge – so workers would now receive about 77 cents per 32-pound bucket – with McDonald's and Yum! Brands (owner of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC). The corporations – not the tomato growers – would pay the 40 percent salary increase. Astonishingly, Burger King has refused to go along with the deal (tell Burger King to pony up)– it would cost them less than $300,000 annually and the corporation took in $2.23 billion in revenues in 2007. Not to mention three private equity firms control most of Burger King's stock, including Goldman Sachs. In 2006 Goldman Sachs' top 12 execs took home bonuses exceeding $200 million – "more than twice as much money as all of the roughly 10,000 tomato pickers in southern Florida earned that year," according to Schlosser.) Even more outrageous is the response of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, representing 90 percent of the state's growers. The group has said it will fine any member $100,000 for accepting the extra penny per pound for worker wages.

It's no surprise that Bush has failed to use the bully pulpit to call out slavery and excessive greed in our nation. It's also no surprise that Sen. Sanders is once again taking a leading role in serving as the conscience of the Senate. Two weeks before the State of the Union address, Sanders, along with Schlosser, went to Immokalee to meet with CIW and witness the working and living conditions firsthand. In letters co-signed by Senators Edward Kennedy, Richard Durbin, and Sherrod Brown, he urged both Burger King and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange to support the penny-per-pound deal. He's also working with Kennedy to hold hearings on this issue in the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee chaired by Kennedy. I spoke with the Senator about his experiences down in Immokalee, and why this is such an important issue for our country. If President Bush truly wants to use his final year in office to ensure that all life is treated with dignity, he should head on over to Sen. Sanders office and get involved.

Here, then, is what Senator Sanders shared with me:

"It was really stunning – the likes of which I have never seen in my life. I've long been interested in workers issues. But when we talk about the race to the bottom here in the United States I would say that Immokalee, Florida is the bottom. I think those are workers who are more ruthlessly exploited and treated with more contempt than any group of workers that I've ever seen and I suspect exist in the US.

What I observed is… I was out at 5:30 in the morning, where tomato pickers from all over the community assemble at several locations, primarily in a large parking lot. School buses come by to pick them up and take them to different growers' tomato fields. Some are selected and some are not. So, for a start, when you line up at 5:30 in the morning, you don't know if you're going to make a nickel during that day. You're standing there, and someone is pointing, ‘you, you, you… but not you….' and you can see people dejected, because by 8:30 the buses are out and if you're not selected you're not gonna work. So these are desperate people then who have just discovered that that day they're not gonna earn a penny.

Then you get on the bus and depending on which farm you're going to it will be longer or shorter, but perhaps you're going a half hour away…. You're getting to the field at 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning, and you don't go to work right away. You're getting paid piecemeal. The pay is very, very low to begin with, but you're getting paid piecemeal. You can't pick until the sun comes out and dries the tomatoes. So we got photographs of workers just hanging around the bus waiting for the tomatoes to dry and that might be an hour, hour and a half. Now it's not only that this is your time, it is in a sense the contempt that you are so disposable, that we can get you out here just to sit around doing nothing while you're waiting for the tomatoes to dry….

Then you go out and you're picking tomatoes and you make on average about 45 cents for a 32 pound bucket of tomatoes – about a penny and a half per pound. That is not a lot of money. My understanding is that at the end of the year these are workers that will make 10,000, 12,000, 14,000 a year, working a very, very difficult job, under a very hot sun. After you do this job for a number of years your knees go out because you're bending over all of the time. Obviously there are no benefits that go with the job. I went over to the health center to see what was going on…. I met with these workers, and talked to them – they just don't go to the doctor. Some of them are able to take their children to the doctor, they have no real access to healthcare.

In terms of their living conditions, I visited trailers… and these trailers were old, decrepit trailers where you had 8 to 10 people living in the trailer. In the morning to get to the bathroom, sink, or stove, you gotta wait in line to do it, because there are a lot of people in front of you. And they're paying in some cases $50 per person, per week! You got that? So, the landlord who owns this old trailer is getting $2000 a month. And what someone there told me – I don't know if it's true or not – they buy these old trailers for about $2000 so they get their money back at the end of one month.

The days I was there – it was raining, when it rains you don't pick. The next day it rained mid-day so you had half a day of picking. Then, an amazing coincidence – when I was there the US Attorney announced an indictment on slavery charges. So we have seen now – I don't remember exactly the number – of different indictments that have been made against different individuals for slavery… which means that some of these people are being held in captivity, in some cases in chains. I think in the last instances, a couple of workers literally forcibly busted out of truck in which they were held against their will. So, the norm there is a disaster, and the extreme is slavery. And this is taking place in the United States of America in the year 2008.

Now some people might say, ‘Well, I don't pick tomatoes why do I have to worry about it?' And the answer is that so long as these types of abysmal working conditions exist in the US, they create a culture which leads us to the race to the bottom… which says that any worker can be subject to arbitrary actions on the part of an employer. Just create a very, very strong anti-worker culture, which is part of the destruction of the middle class, the increase in poverty, the lack of respect for working people in this country.

Now the good news is there is a very wonderful group called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers who have managed to put pressure on large buyers of tomatoes, i.e., fast food chains like Yum! which owns Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, and McDonald's, to pay an additional penny a pound. And if you understand that if someone is making a penny and a half a pound, and they get an additional penny, that's a very significant increase. Burger King has been resistant, and there is now pressure being put on Burger King and other companies. And I would hope that as Americans, we all do everything we can, to demand that companies pay these workers a living wage and end this horrendous exploitation.

The Tomato Growers Exchange seems to be playing a very reactionary role. They are claiming that this additional penny a pound is in violation of antitrust law… I myself think that the issue – if you look at the amount of money that is being asked to be contributed by McDonald's, Burger King, and so forth – it is nothing. Very, very small number. I don't think the money is the issue. I think truthfully, in my gut, the issue is a question of a balance of power. It is a feeling right now that you have workers who are absolutely helpless, the feeling that if they achieve some victories, they may have more confidence in themselves and more of an ability to stand up for their rights.

So, imagine, just put yourself in their place. You don't know whether you're gonna work or not, there are no guarantees that you are – I may pick you, I may not – if you come there, if I pick you, you're gonna wait around for an hour and a half. What does that do to you as a human being? But these are desperate people who need the work, so to my mind it was an eye-opening experience, and I hope that as a nation we can end that kind of exploitation.

The very good news – what was positive about my visit down there was – we did a press conference, and the reporters went to Burger King, and Burger King came forth with what appeared to be a conciliatory response. Now whether it is just talk or not, we can't tell. But we want to pursue that. And certainly what we released when I was down there was a letter that was written by Senator Kennedy, Sen. Durbin, Sen. Brown and myself. And Sen. Kennedy has been very clear in telling me that he is prepared to do hearings on this issue. And I think that's terribly important, not only in exposing the exploitation, but trying to explain to the American people how slavery can take place in the United States in the year 2008."