DUBUQUE – As they left Dubuque County Precinct 19's Democratic presidential caucus, supporters of Illinois Senator Barack Obama grabbed up campaign signs they had placed a few hours earlier outside downtown Dubuque's Carnegie-Stout Library.
"We'll need these in November," they shouted with delight, expressing the confidence that comes with having just written a new narrative for the 2008 presidential race.
The polls going into Thursday night's Iowa caucuses showed Obama leading New York Senator Hillary Clinton, the national frontrunner, and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, who at one time was the Iowa front-runner. But his backers, most of them young and many first-time caucus participants, were not quite ready to believe it when they showed up to caucus at the library on Dubuque's Bluff Street.
But, as in so many of the 3,000 precincts across Iowa, the Obama backers of Precinct 19 knew within minutes that something remarkable, something beyond their wildest hopes, was about to play out.
Obama would win not just Precinct 19 but the whole of the first-caucus state of Iowa, taking 38 percent of the statewide vote to 30 percent for Edwards and 29 percent for Clinton. On the strength of his Iowa win, Obama declared, "Change is coming to America!"
Even as the Iowa results were being tabulated, change was coming to the race for the Democratic nomination for president.
Two senior senators, Delaware Senator Joe Biden and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, signaled that they would drop out of the Democratic race. The campaign of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who finished fourth in Iowa with just two percent of the caucus votes, was on life support going into next Tuesday's critical New Hampshire primary. And former front-runner Hillary Clinton was struggling to right her campaign before next Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.
"We beat the Clinton machine!" shouted Gabe Ward, a 29-year-old Obama team leader for Precinct 19. "We beat the expectations. And we did it by turning out a whole new generation of Democratic voters."
It had been said for weeks that if turnout was high for the caucuses, Obama would have the advantage.
Turnout was not just high in Precinct 19, it was extraordinary. In 2004, when Democrats had a very competitive contest for the nomination, 77 people showed up for the caucus in downtown Dubuque.
Last night, 219 people showed up. The crowd spilled out of the third-floor auditorium of the library into adjoining rooms.
When caucus chair Nick Lucy asked newcomers to raise their hands, roughly half of the people in the room indicated that this was their first time caucuses.
"Wow!" declared Lucy, a veteran Dubuque Democrat.
It was the same across Iowa, where Democratic turnout for the caucuses almost doubled to 220,000 on the strength of a massive influx of young voters. Seated front and center for the Precinct 19 caucuses was Brianna Cleland, a 22-year-old recent college graduate who is now teaching in Dubuque. How much did she know about caucusing? "Not much until today," she admitted. "I had someone explain it to me this morning. It sounded like a skewed way of picking dodge ball teams. But I knew I wanted to do it."
And she knew who she wanted to do it for.
"I really want to make something happen in America," she explained. "And the way to do that is with someone new, with someone different, and that's Barack Obama."
Pre-caucus polls showed that Iowa Democrats wanted change. And Obama was the embodiment of that demand.
"I'm ready for change and I fell that Obama is the change candidate," said 25-year-old Liz Wagner, a high school social studies teacher who caucuses wearing an orange "I Caucus for Darfur" t-shirt that expressed her concern for a neglected region of Africa and her desire for the new and more engaged foreign policies Obama promised on the campaign trail.
"I'm glad that he was opposed to the Iraq War before it started," Wagner said of Obama. "It shows he has some judgment. That's more that you can say about most of the other candidates or most of the Democrats in Congress."
When it was announced that 89 of the people in the room had signed in as Obama supporters, Wagner and those around her leapt to their feet and cheered. That was almost the number caucusing for Hillary Clinton – 46 -- and dramatically more than the 18 who registered for Edwards.
Clinton and Edwards backers were clearly deflated, as were supporters of Delaware Senator Joe Biden, who tallied 18, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, none of whom attracted even 10 backers to the Precinct 19 caucus.
Caucuses are different from elections, however. The initial count is just that, an initial count. Then comes the jockeying for support from backers of candidates who fell short.
To gain one of Precinct 19's seven delegates to the county convention in March – the next stage in the process of selecting delegates to this summer's Democratic National Convention – a candidate had to have 33 caucusers . The Edwards and Biden campaigns started hustling immediately to win over backers of Richardson, Dodd and Kucinich, as well as uncommitted caucusers. At the same time, Obama and Clinton backers sought to up their tallies.
It was a wild scene. Katherine Kluseman, an arts administrator, walked from group to group announcing, "If anyone is even remotely interested in John Edwards and his message… come join up for Edwards."
"C'mon over for Joe Biden," shouted Chad Witthoeft, a local bar owner. When Richardson backers suggested that Biden's people might join them in supporting the New Mexico governor, Witthoeft said, "This about the signal you're sending. Think about who could be vice president. Richardson looks like (the late ‘Saturday Night Live' star) John Belushi."
When all was said and done, Edwards and Biden both reached the threshold. But Obama's crew went from strength to strength, attracting backers from the Kucinich and Richardson camps in sufficient numbers to secure three delegates, while Clinton won 2 and Edwards and Biden had one each.
Statewide, Obama secured 940 delegates to the state convention, while Edwards had 744. Clinton got 737. Richardson had 53, Biden had 23, Dodd had 1.
Before the night was done, Obama would tell a crowd of wildly-cheering supporters at his victory party in Des Moines that "on this January night, at this defining moment in our history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do."
"We are ready to believe again," declared the senator.
The folks in Dubuque's Precinct 19 weren't able to make it to Des Moines. But they understood exactly what Obama was saying. They had lived it on a cold January night in Iowa.
"My friends in Oregon have been lobbying me to participate in the caucuses," explained Marianne Oberdoerster, a 40-year-old member of the staff at Loras College who recently moved to Dubuque from the west coast. "They all say: You've got the power. And I guess we do. Isn't that remarkable? We have the power. We've made Barack Obama a serious contender for president of the United States."
By backing John Edwards' presidential campaign this week, Ralph Nader offered "rare praise for a leading Democratic politician," as The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel explained. After all, the consumer advocate is a Green Party hero and Democratic Party nemesis. Now the New York Times Katharine Seelye wonders whether the Edwards Campaign is trying to duck Nader's praise, noting it has blasted press releases about minor endorsements and free ice cream, while there is radio silence on any developments involving the (in)famous Ralph Nader:
Is the campaign is more eager to boast about handing out free ice cream in January than to mention Mr. Nader's endorsement? The Edwards camp confirms that they did not issue a release, saying they believe that Mr. Nader did. Why not? No response. [...] The silence from the Edwards camp may be a new sign of how far Mr. Nader has fallen in public esteem from his days as the nation's chief consumer advocate.
Nader is clearly anathema to Democratic activists. But Edwards Campaign Manager David Bonior did welcome Nader's support, with a 2000 caveat, when I asked him about it on Tuesday:
We're pleased to have support from people from all walks of life around the country. We disagreed with Ralph Nader obviously about what he did in 2000, but we're pleased to have support from [Iowa First Lady] Mary Culver, from Ralph, from all kinds of folks...
So Bonior doesn't think Nader is so electorally toxic that his support must be rebuffed. I don't think Nader cuts any ice with Democrats in Iowa, though he could still be useful in mobilizing some progressive and radical voters in a general election.
DES MOINES -- Embracing the legacy of a grandfather who "worked the graveyard shift... in the mills," quoting Democratic icons Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and recounting the story of a teenage girl who died after being denied health care, John Edwards closed what has become a fiercely-populist Iowa caucus campaign with a roaring condemnation of war profiteering in Iraq and corporate abuse at home.
Sounding themes rarely heard from major candidates of either party in recent decades, the former senator from North Carolina attacked "the glorification of corporate profit" that would leave "children living on the streets and in cars while CEOs make billions and billions of dollars."
"This is insanity, and it must stop!" shouted Edwards in a speech that attacked by name Blackwater, Halliburton, Exxon-Mobil and other corporations. And the crowd of steelworkers, carpenters, nurses and family farmers -- one of the largest assembled for any candidate during the course of the campaign leading up to Thursday's caucuses -- responded with wild applause for Edwards' promise to break "the iron grip" of corporate power.
The crowd at the Edwards event numbered more than 3,000, roughly twice that assembled at Des Moines-area rallies Wednesday night for Illinois Senator Barack Obama and New York Senator Hillary Clinton.
Of course, Edwards had help. Singer John Mellencamp joined the candidate on stage at the Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines. The popular performer, who helped to organize the Farm Aid concerts, drew plenty of wavering voters to the event.
Whether Edwards reached those sympathetic-but-uncertain voters will decide the fate of a campaign that will have a difficult time moving forward without an Iowa win.
There is little question now that Edwards and Obama are competing with one another for the votes of Iowans who want to nominate an agent of change. This week's Des Moines Register survey of likely Democratic caucus goers found that voters were more interested, by a 2-1 margin, in selecting a candidate who would shift the direction of the nation than in choosing one who merely offers the promise of sound leadership.
Clinton's got the clear advantage among those who are most interested in leadership skills. And she could still win with their support.
But Edwards and Obama are grabbing for the "change" mantle that each man believes has the potential to vault him into position to displace Clinton as the national front-runner.
Edwards and Obama are going at it from decidedly different directions, however. Since emerging as the leader in surveys of likely caucus-goers, Obama has waged a relatively soft and safe, "can't-we-all-just-get-along" campaign -- going so far as to air television and radio ads celebrating the appeal of his centrist themes to Republicans who his campaign specifically urges to caucus on his behalf. (In Iowa, anyone who shows up at a party caucus can participate.)
Obama's still ahead in most Iowa polls. But, as Edwards has surged in recent weeks, the Illinoisan has picked up some of his rival's populist langauge. One of Obama's last television ads has the senator declaring that, "I've spent my life working for change that's made a real difference in the lives of real people. That's why I passed up a job on Wall Street to fight joblessness and poverty on the streets of Chicago when the local steel plant closed. That's why I turned down the corporate law firms to work as a civil rights lawyer, to fight for those who've been denied opportunity."
But even in his "populist" commercial, Obama features "I brought Democrats and Republicans together" themes.
No one should doubt the power of Obama's unity appeal. He delivers it well. And, after the divisiveness of the Bush-Cheney years, there is indeed something refreshing about the prospect of a president who embraces the promise of negotiation and compromise.
"Change isn't going to come because people are hollering more, talking tough... We don't need more heat. We need more light," says Obama, clearly seeking to contrast his message with that of Edwards.
Edwards begs to differ.
He is not looking for the middle ground at this point. He's not promising "win-win" solutions.
"I don't believe you can sit at a table and negotiate with drug companies, insurance companies and oil companies and hope that they will voluntarily give their power away," the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee explained in Des Moines Wednesday night. "They will give their power away when we take their power away."
Though he did not mention Obama by name, it was pretty clear that Edwards was speaking of his more soft-spoken rival when he declared "the status quo and good intentions are not enough."
"Corporate greed is robbing our children of the promise of America. It is time for us to fight back," shouted Edwards to the cheering crowd at the Val Air ballroom. "You better know that tomorrow night you need to send a fighter and a warrior into that battle on your behalf."
What Edwards knows is that -- while Obama can afford to run second and perhaps even third in Iowa -- the option is not available to him. Without an Iowa win, Edwards does not have the money or the poll numbers to renew his candidacy in the New Hampshire primary that comes barely 100 hours after the caucuses finish.
So Edwards is telling Iowa Democrats that Thursday is the populist make-or-break moment. And he is promising them an epic shift in the political process if they embrace it.
"What will happen when you are finished is that you will start a tidal wave of change that will sweep across this country with a power that cannot be changed, that cannot be stopped," says Edwards.
Actually, what will happen depends on what Iowans decide in a matter of hours. They want change. But they have yet to define the sort of change they want. That will happen Thursday night, when caucus goers choose between the soft promise of Barack Obama and the edgier populism of John Edwards. Or when they divide closely enough between the two to give a win, and the momentum that goes with it, to the woman who until a few months ago was supposed to have this thing all wrapped up.
As Nation.com readers need no reminding, tomorrow residents of Iowa will become the first citizens in the country to weigh in on the presidential nominees. But not all residents of the state get to vote because it uses a caucus system (as does Nevada) instead of an open primary.
Watch this video by the youth voting group, Why Tuesday, if you're confused about the caucusing.
Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton have special sites and videos that offer instructions for how to caucus. Clinton emphasizes how easy it is, and Obama's and Edwards' step-by-step instructional videos make the point that caucusing is cool.
In comparison, New Hampshire, the second state to vote on a presidential nominee, holds its primary on January 8 and is the first to let its entire voting population vote on each nominee. New Hampshire treasures its placement in the primary calendar, and people there take its primary role very seriously. Candidates and campaign staff know that unless they've stood in a voter's living room, the voters in these two first states don't consider you a real candidate. There's even a truism in Iowa that no one caucuses for a candidate that they haven't met.
After New Hampshire, Michigan follows on January 15, and South Carolina -- the first Southern state -- holds its primary on January 26, with the controversial early Florida vote three days later. Then there's Tsunami-Tuesday, as much of the rest of the country chimes in on February 5.
If I was an Iowa resident I'd caucus for Obama. Take The Nation's unscientific straw poll to tell us who you support and read The Nation's latest editorial to see what the magazine is thinking about the Democratic field.
A lot of men don't like Hillary. A lot of men say they don't want to vote for Hillary--even Democratic men. The new Los Angeles Times/ Bloomberg poll, released December 28, shows that only 19 per cent of Democratic men favor Clinton in upcoming caucuses and primaries--less than one in five. The implications for Hillary are ominous: since she can't expect Republican men to vote for her, how can she win the election?
That poll focused on likely voters in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries, but other polls asking a national sample about the November election have come up similar results. A Washington Post-ABC poll in November found that, in a Clinton-Giuliani matchup, men preferred Giuliani 51 to 44. In a CNN poll in October, only 41 per cent of men said Clinton is someone they admire (compared to 57 per cent of women).
Why do so many men dislike Clinton? Is it simply because she's a woman? Susan Carroll, Senior Scholar at the Rutgers University Center for the American Woman and Politics, told me that politics provides a more important explanation than sexism: "Men are more likely than women to identify as Republicans," she explained. "Men are more likely than women to prefer Republican candidates and their policy positions. Men's partisan preferences are the main reason why many of them wouldn't vote for Clinton. Many of the men who say they won't vote for Clinton wouldn't vote for any Democratic candidate, man or woman."
But that doesn't explain the Democratic men who won't vote for Clinton. Some of them disagree with her on the issues, especially her vote for the Iraq war--but for others, the explanation may lie in simple hostility to the idea of any woman as president.
Even if some Democratic men won't vote for her in November, Clinton could still get elected if she won enough votes from Republican women. In fact that's what the Clinton campaign is predicting. Mark Penn, a Clinton senior strategist and pollster, told reporters in October that Clinton could win 24 per cent of Republican women.
With that gain, Hillary could win the election even if 20 per cent of Democratic men voted Republican, according to DailyKos. However recent Rasmussen polls show Clinton winning only 18 per cent of Republican women, rather than the required 24, while losing 20 per cent of Democratic men. That's not enough Republican women to get Clinton elected.
Clinton advocates point out that if she got 44 per cent of the male vote in November -- the figure in that Washington Post poll matchup with Giuliani -- she'd end up ahead of Kerry, who got only 41 per cent of men in 2004. She also would end up ahead of Al Gore, who got 42 per cent of men in 2000.
Amazingly, if she got that 44 per cent of men in November, she'd be doing better than Bill Clinton, who got only 43 per cent of the male vote when he won his reelection race in 1996. According to the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers, Bill Clinton's 43 per cent of men is the best a Democratic candidate has done in the last 25 years.
That suggests Hillary's man problem is not very serious -- but it still might bring her defeat in November. Of course Kerry and Gore would have won if they'd had more votes from men, and Bill Clinton won only because Ross Perot siphoned off conservative (i.e. male) votes from the Republicans. The December polls show Hillary beating Giuliani, but only by one or two points -- too close for comfort -- and losing to McCain by a frightening five points.
Mount Pleasant, Iowa -- John Edwards continued his 36-hour tour across Iowa this morning, meeting with canvas organizers over cider and donuts and fielding a few questions from the growing pack of reporters tracking his "middle class marathon." Writing on the front page of today's New York Times, defense correspondent Michael Gordon reports that Edwards has "staked out" an Iraq policy auguring "a more rapid and complete troop withdrawal than his principal rivals," so I asked Edwards whether he is claiming the mantle as the most antiwar candidate in his closing argument. He responded:
I don't make those kind of evaluations. I'm doing what I think is the right responsible course for America, which is to get all our combat troops out of Iraq in the first year of my presidency; end combat missions and have no permanent military bases. America needs to end its occupation of Iraq and I will do that as President.
Tom Hayden sees the Times article as a new development, but I don't really see a major shift in the policy or tone here. Edwards is still closing on economic populism, but reaffirming his Iraq plan when voters or reporters raise the question. Iraq is not mentioned in his current, truncated stump speech, though Edwards did add a reference to ending the war during a pitch to undecided voters at a café in Fairfield this morning. But it's clear that the focus of his closing argument remains beltway-bashing populist passion, as he emphasized today:
The people of Iowa and the people of America are unstoppable when they commit themselves to stopping these entrenched special interests. And I believe that's going to happen, I think it's going to happen tomorrow night in the caucus, and it's going to continue after the caucus through the rest of America.
In this next month, it's understandable that attention will be paid 36/7 to what happens in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early presidential primaries. But progressive democrats shouldn't lose sight of important races in the House and Senate, and there are some fights to watch in those primaries – fights where good progressive candidates are running.
One critical race is in Maryland's 4th District. In 2006, long-time activist and lawyer Donna Edwards ran against incumbent Albert Wynn on an antiwar message, losing the Democratic primary by just 3 points. Now, with the February 12 primary just around the corner, Edwards is mounting another tenacious challenge to Wynn. She recently picked up two key labor endorsements from the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 – the latter of whom endorsed Wynn in 2006. (Wynn also "mistakenly" listed the SEIU as a supporter in campaign materials in 2006 though the union had chosen not to endorse in the race.)
"I am honored to receive this endorsement from SEIU and UFCW – two of the most vibrant leaders among organized labor," Edwards wrote me in an email. "These workers join a host of other organizations that have endorsed my candidacy who are fighting to protect the environment, improve the lives of working families, enhance women's rights, for quality, affordable health care and to end the war in Iraq. I am proud to have the support of such diverse groups that have come together to help bring necessary change to Maryland's 4th Congressional District." Other organizations that have endorsed Edwards include Sierra Club, Emily's List, the National Organization for Women, Progressive Democrats of America, ACORN, and the League of Conservation Voters.
Edwards and her supporters make a compelling case on the need for change, pointing not only to Wynn's support for the War in Iraq, but also votes for the Republican Energy Bill, weakening the Endangered Species Act, tax breaks for oil and gas companies, repealing the estate tax, privatizing the Internet, drilling in Alaska, supporting the pharmaceuticals on drug policy and the credit card companies on the bankruptcy bill. Edwards notes that she herself supported Albert Wynn for Congress when he first ran in 1992, but now she calls him "Maryland's Joe Lieberman," saying, "We haven't left Albert Wynn. He's left us."
In contrast, Edwards says, she represents "the hopes and values that are the core of the Democratic Party – for workers, for families, for our country." Indeed, Edwards used her law degree to serve the public interest, fighting domestic violence and gaining a national reputation for that work in the process. Since 2000, she has served as the executive director of The Arca Foundation, one of the most interesting small progressive foundations working today, with a commitment to social justice at home and abroad that spans over 50 years. (I served on the board of Arca for two months – before I realized that it was going to be too demanding...along with The Nation day job! But during that time I had the good fortune to go on a site visit with Donna. She's tenacious, smart – and will do great work for her constituents as she has done throughout her career!)
Edwards' friends in labor see her as the progressive alternative to Wynn as well. Ebs Burnough, Political Director of 1199 SEIU, told the Prince George's Gazette, "Donna Edwards has the progressive principles to best represent the Marylanders in the 4th District. She is a proven leader, supporting living wage campaigns, preventing domestic violence and promoting innovative programs that make a difference in the lives of working families."
"She's a person who's going to help us lead the change," Mark Federici, Director of Strategic Programs with the UFCW local, told the Washington Post. "The change is about progressive values and the value of people that work – living wages, affordable health care, respect and dignity on the job."
Fighting for his political life, Wynn has made a clear move to the left since defeating Edwards by less than 3,000 votes in 2006, in what Maryland State Senator and valued Nation contributor Jamie Raskin calls "a dramatic turnabout." Raskin, a long-time friend of Edwards and a passionate progressive leader in the Maryland General Assembly since his own landslide upset victory in the 2006 Democratic primary (nine of his bills were passed into law in his first legislative session!), says Edwards has already scored a major victory. "Donna could win this in February, but in a sense she's already won because she's established for the rest of our lifetimes that this is an honest-to-goodness progressive district, not a triangulating DLC district whose representative can vote for Republican war drives or top-down class warfare," Raskin told me. "There's no going back on that now. The question is whether Donna will lead in Congress next year or continue to lead from the outside."
The SEIU has 22,350 Maryland members and the UFCW local represents 14,000 workers in the state. Labor endorsements of challengers to Democratic incumbents are rare, as Terry Cavanagh, executive director of the SEIU Maryland State Council, told the Post: "We do a good job holding Republicans accountable during general elections, but we need to do a better job holding Democrats accountable, too. That's what this is about." According to the Post – which also endorsed Edwards in 2006 – the SEIU has designated "getting Edwards elected [as] a top national priority," and both unions plan "an aggressive ground game on her behalf, including mailings, phone banks and door-to-door canvassing."
When someone like Donna Edwards comes along – someone devoted to progressive principles, ready to amplify progressive voices in Congress, and in a position to win elected office – it's important that we stand up and support her. When the frenzy surrounding Iowa and New Hampshire passes, let's remember the maxim that all politics is local. As Donna Edwards said to me, "This election can and should be a real line in the sand moment for progressives to reclaim the Democratic Party. That means getting members of the progressive caucus – women, union members, activists and elected officials – energized about this election to send a real message that voters are no longer willing to accept ‘business as usual.'"
Business as usual isn't just the fault of Republicans. That's why this time around we need to make sure that Donna Edwards wins.
Ring in the New Year with a commitment to nonviolent direct action to end the Iraq war and to prevent an extension of US military aggression to Iran and other countries.
Starting last week, antiwar activists in Des Moines, Iowa, have been pressing a campaign of nonviolent direct action, Seasons Of Discontent: a Presidential Occupation Project (SODaPOP), with the "occupations" of the campaign offices of Presidential candidates--both Democrats and Republicans--who have not publicly committed to a withdrawal of US military forces from Iraq within one hundred days of taking office and who do not oppose any and all forms of military action against Iran. (Note: This is everyone except for Kucinich, Gravel and Paul.)
While the majority of Americans favor a quick withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, each of the leading candidates of both parties endorse plans that would keep thousands of troops there for the foreseeable future. "We're very respectful of the [Iowa] Caucus process and the long history behind it," said Voices for Creative Nonviolence (VCNV) coordinator Kathy Kelly at a rally at Nollen Plaza in Des Moines on November 8, "but we feel quite strongly that the issues of this war must be inserted into the process of narrowing down who the candidates for the presidential elections will be."
Consequently, activists from around the nation will join Iowans in occupying campaign offices in the lead-up to the Iowa Caucuses on January 3. The SODaPOP campaign, part of the Voices for Creative Non-Violence, will continue with occupations of pro-war candidates in other states as the primary schedule winds its way across America in the weeks and months ahead.
The coalition's demands are unlikely to be met by whomever wins the White House in November but the point seems worth making that a majority of the American public, the Iraqi public and the world favor a quick and speedy withdrawal. Click here to find out how you can help the cause and click here to help spread the word on the SODaPOP campaign.
Thanks for reading (and acting!) in 2007 and Happy New Year!
Let down by a dangerous Republican White House, a compromising Democratic Congress and a distracting and dysfunctional mainstream media, progressives persevered in 2007, laying the groundwork for what we can only hope will be the different and better politics of 2008. The list of heroes and champions is endless, but here are some of the MVPs -- Most Valuable Progressives -- from the activist, political, media and cultural spheres of the last full year before the last full year of the Bush-Cheney interregnum:
* Most Valuable Teaching Moment: When fundamentalist Republicans made a stink about the fact that newly-elected Minnesota Congressman KEITH ELLISON, the first Muslim elected to the House, would not be swearing his oath on their version of the scriptures, Ellison trumped them with history. He placed his hand on an edition of the Koran that had been donated to the Library of Congress by a student of Islam and all the world's great religions: Thomas Jefferson.
* Most Valuable Activist Group: At a time when Congress and the White House seem to have agreed that there will always be more than enough money for defense spending, the terrific Caucus4Priorities campaign of IOWANS FOR SENSIBLE PRIORITIES has kept alive the concept of a peace dividend. The group -- a grassroots project of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, the national group founded in 1998 by BEN COHEN of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, has used creative tactics and old-fashioned people power to make an issue of wasteful Pentagon spending. In doing so, they've succeeded where the media has failed in forcing presidential candidates to discuss budgeting in deeper and smarter terms. "We aim to redirect 15% of the Pentagon's discretionary budget away from obsolete Cold War weapons towards education, healthcare, job training, alternative energy development, world hunger, deficit reduction," the organizers explain. "This 15% cut, or $60 billion dollars, on obsolete weapons systems and the further proliferation of nuclear weapons does not include the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in no way impacts homeland security or our defense. We have the money; let's spend it on sensible priorities!"
* Most Valuable Activist: TIM CARPENTER of PROGRESSIVE DEMOCRATS OF AMERICA did not just argue that progressives should stay and fight within a Democratic party that seemed to let them down at every turn in 2007. He showed them how to do it by leading PDA's aggressive and unblinking campaigns for rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, impeachment of Bush and Cheney, a single-payer national health care plan, media reform and a real response to climate change. PDA won the confidence of Congressional Progressive Caucus members, with House lefties such as Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters and Raul Grijalva joining its board. Much of the credit goes to the tireless, humble yet unyielding Carpenter.
* Most Valuable Think Tank: LIBERTY TREE: Foundation for the Democratic Revolution is staffed by young, smart thinkers with roots in green and student politics who push the limits of the debate about how to repair elections, reform education and renew the spirit of 1776. Fellows such as BEN MANSKI and KAITLIN SOPOCI-BELKNAP go beyond narrow interpretations of both the Constitution and what is possible in a republic to explore what real democracy would look like at the international, national, state, regional and local levels. Read their great journal and visit them at: www.libertytreefdr.org
* Most Valuable Crusade: When no one else seemed to be getting serious about challenging the Bush-Cheney administration's taste for torture, THE WORLD CAN'T WAIT movement developed an orange campaign – appropriating the color of the jump suits worn by detainees – to highlight popular opposition to violations of the Geneva Conventions and the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. As the torture issue came front and center, DEBRA SWEET and other World Can't Wait activists – most of them veterans of the pre-war Not In Our Name movement -- were already there with a smart, uncompromising challenge to untenable practices and an untenable status quo.
* Most Valuable Internet Site: When people ask about how and where to follow what is happening with the movements to end the war in Iraq, to prevent a war with Iran and to hold to account those who launched one mad war and now seek to initiate another, the answer is always www.AFTERDOWNINGSTREET.org site. Constantly updated by the indefatigable DAVID SWANSON, the site is fresh -- there were even six posts on Christmas Day -- and it features local actions (via YouTube) as well as national interventions. Because it is so thorough and so engaged with local and regional protests and events, the AfterDowningStreet site provides the best illustration of the extent to which mainstream media has neglected the most vital movements of the moment.
* Most Valuable Congressman: ROBERT WEXLER, D-Florida, was appropriately savage in his Judiciary Committee questioning of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Wexler almost single-handedly restored the separation of powers. Then, after Ohio Congressman DENNIS KUCINICH forced House consideration of his proposal to impeach Vice President Cheney, the Florida congressman grabbed the issue and organized a push by key members of the Judiciary Committee to open hearings on the veep's high crimes and misdemeanors. If he keeps this up in 2008, Wexler could yet force the House to be what the founders intended: a check and balance on executive lawlessness.
* Most Valuable Senator: Vermont Independent BERNIE SANDERS boldly battled the Bush administration on the international stage by traveling to Costa Rica before that country's fall referendum vote on whether to accept the Central American Free Trade Agreement. As the Bush administration was making all sorts of threats in order to scare Costa Ricans into capitulating to a neo-liberal agenda that serves Wall Street rather than workers in the U.S. or Latin America, Sanders arrived with the news that the U.S. government includes more than just a White House, and that the Constitution permits not just the president but the Congress to have a say regarding trade policies. Sanders put the White House on notice that its lies and bully tactics would no longer go unchallenged; hopefully, others in the House and Senate will join him in reasserting the strong legislative stance that is essential to transparent and democratic policy making with regard to a troubled economy.
*Most Valuable Commissioner: MICHAEL COPPS may have been on the losing end of the FCC's December vote on whether to knock down barriers to media monopoly in cities across the country. But the dissident commissioner's brilliant detailing of the threats posed to minority ownership, cultural diversity, local news gathering and journalism laid the groundwork for legislative and legal challenges that will upset the 3-2 decision that saw Copps and Commissioner JONATHAN ADELSTEIN stand up to Rupert Murdoch and the Bush White House. Said Copps in his blistering dissent: "Today's decision would make George Orwell proud. We claim to be giving the news industry a shot in the arm--but the real effect is to reduce total newsgathering. We shed crocodile tears for the financial plight of newspapers--yet the truth is that newspaper profits are about double the S&P 500 average. We pat ourselves on the back for holding six field hearings across the United States--yet today's decision turns a deaf ear to the thousands of Americans who waited in long lines for an open mike to testify before us. We say we have closed loopholes--yet we have introduced new ones. We say we are guided by public comment--yet the majority's decision is overwhelmingly opposed by the public as demonstrated in our record and in public opinion surveys. We claim the mantle of scientific research--even as the experts say we've asked the wrong questions, used the wrong data, and reached the wrong conclusions."
* Most Valuable National Radio: RACHEL MADDOW has survived the changes at Air America and thrived. Why? Because she's smart enough to be serious when called for and hilarious when necessary. She's also got a spot-on sense of what it means to be a progressive in an era when the Democratic party often fails to uphold progressive values. She's anti-Bush, and even more scathingly anti-Cheney, but she does not skimp when it comes to holding Democrats to account. Added bonus: Maddow's got a taste for cultural stories that makes her early evening show far broader in scope than most talk radio.
* Most Valuable Local Radio: ARNIE ARNESEN is the New Hampshire radio host all the candidates want to talk to: sort of. Everyone knows Arnesen is smart and fair -- she's a lefty with a libertarian streak who once was the Democratic nominee for governor but who minces no words about the two parties. She's got equally smart and fair listeners. The "trouble" is that Arnesen pulls no punches. She expects her guests to scrap the soundbites and answer questions in full sentences with full ideas. It makes for great radio; indeed, listening to politicos struggle to keep up with her is part of what makes covering the New Hampshire primaries fun. When is some radio network going to be smart enough to take Arnie national?
* Most Valuable Television: MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann is essential viewing that provides a nightly dose of reality to a nation still kept in the dark by most media. But broadcast television remains the vast wasteland that does the most to deaden our discourse, and that is why BILL MOYERS JOURNAL remained the essential antidote to what ails the body politic. Interviews with JEREMY SCAHILL, MARTIN ESPADA, SCOTT RITTER, BARBARA EHRENREICH , LORI WALLACH AND JON STEWART – along with Olbermann and Stephen Colbert, a savior of cable – were among the highlights of 2007. He also devoted an hour to an impeachment discussion featuring Reagan administration lawyer Bruce Fein and this reporter, a commitment that other broadcast or cable program have yet to make.
* Most Valuable Political Book: NAOMI WOLF's THE END OF AMERICA: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot (Chelsea Green). When Wolf started writing about the drift of the United States toward fascism, she was dismissed by some as another casual commentator blowing off some anti-Bush steam. But her detailing of the parallels between steps taken by the current administration and moves made by the 20th century's most notorious dictators to transform democracies into authoritarian states is convincing as it is chilling. And Wolf is not just complaining; she's the "face" of the American Freedom Campaign's important drive to identify and confront assaults on basic liberties and the system of checks and balances.
* Most Valuable Political Album: "KALA" by M.I.A. The Sri Lankan singer -- daughter of a prominent Tamil militant -- speaks truth when she declares: "I put people on the map that never seen a map." This is way beyond world beat. Maya Arulpragasam stirs up a global gumbo of ragga, ganna, soca, dancehall, electro, punk, Bollywood and hip-hop, mixes in heaping helpings of attitude and insight and serves it raw. If there is such a thing as refugee rock, this is it – like the best of Rachid Taha and Tinariwen, only edgier and with a scorching case of "Bird Flu."
* Most Valuable Political Song: "GOD BLESS AMERICA" by JAMES McMURTRY. Written on the cusp of 2006/2007 and circulated on the internet (www.jamesmcmurtry.com) over the past year, no song caught the zeitgeist better than this one – except perhaps McMurtry's previous take on oil wars and the fundamentalisms of Bible-thumping Christians and Weekly Standard-thumping neo-cons. Every McMurtry song has a million-dollar stanzy; in this one it's: "You keep talking that shit like I never heard/ Hush, little President, don't say a word/ When the rapture comes and the angels sing/ God's gonna buy you a diamond ring…" Watch for McMurtry's upcoming album with "God Bless America." It'll be a great send-off for the little President who couldn't.
DES MOINES -- The announcement of John Mellencamp's Wednesday night show to cap the Iowa caucus campaign of John Edwards did not provoke the media frenzy that accompanied Oprah Winfrey's Des Moines tarmac tap on behalf of rival Democrat Barack Obama.
For this, Edwards should be thankful.
Obama stalled in the Iowa polls after Winfrey visited the state on his behalf early in December. With hours to go before the caucusing begins, he's essentially where he was a month ago -- ahead in many polls, but mainly on the strength of young and independent voters who may or may not show for caucuses that traditionally have been dominated by older and more partisan Democrats.
In contrast, national front-runner Hillary Clinton, who fumbled repeatedly in November and early December, and Edwards, who had been written out of the race by some pundits, appear to have regained their positions going into tonight's voting.
Obama misread Iowa. He bet on style over substance in a state where activist Democrats take seriously the definitional role their play in the nominating process. The senator from Illinois, who had so much momentum at the beginning of December, calculated that the Hawkeye state might be locked up by a recommendation from a multi-media persona whose entry into presidential politics came off a little like the launch of a new "project."
None of this means that Obama should be counted out in Iowa. He has spent far more money than the other candidates on slick TV ads, he has hired some of the best caucus strategists and his campaign is tossing every charge and claim it can muster into a drive to blunt the momentum that has belonged to Edwards since he dominated the last pre-caucus debate between the Democratic contenders.
Obama is still the safe bet to win tonight.
But, despite his many advantages, the Illinoisan could well finish behind Edwards.
That's because the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president has waged a dramatically different campaign than Obama's feel-good effort. Where Obama has run the softest sort of campaign, Edwards is mounting a edgy, muscular effort that owes more to the memory of Paul Wellstone or the sensibilities of Ralph Nader than to the smooth triangulations of Bill Clinton or the not-so-smooth compromises of John Kerry.
Edwards has fought his way back into contention with aggressively populist positions, anti-corporate rhetoric and a campaign that eschews glitz for grit -- as evidenced by a grueling 36-hour marathon campaign swing that includes the Mellencamp visit. Necessarily, the former senator from North Carolina opts for a different sort of celebrity than the other contenders.
So it is that Mellencamp comes to Iowa to close the Edwards celevrate the Edwards campaign with a "This Is Our Country" rally at the not-exactly-Hollywood Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines. (In case anyone missed the point here, tickets were distributed not through some slick internet delivery system but from the United Steelworkers Local 310 hall.)
Where Winfrey brought a big name but little in the way of a track record on issues that are fundamental to the rural and small-town Iowans who historically have played a disproportional role in tonight's caucuses, Mellencamp is more than just another celebrity taking a lap around the policy arena.
For a quarter century, the singer has been in the thick of the fight on behalf of the rural families he immortalized in the video for "Rain on the Scarecrow," his epic song about the farm crisis that buffeted Iowa and neighboring states in the 1980s and never really ended.
Mellencamp has not merely sung about withering small towns and farm foreclosures. As a organizer of Farm Aid, he has brought some of the biggest stars in the world to benefit concerts in Iowa and surrounding states, and he has helped to distribute the money raised at those events to organizations across Iowa.
Farm Aid is nonpartisan. It's not endorsing in this race. But Mellencamp is. The singer, who this year will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but whose music remains vital enough to have earned a 2008 Grammy nomination for Best Rock Vocal Performance, was lobbied for support by other campaigns, especially Clinton's. But he has a long relationship with Edwards. He has an even longer relationship with the issues that Edwards is talking about. Indeed, his credibility is grounded in the recognition that Mellencamp has repeatedly taken career-risking anti-war, anti-racist and anti-poverty stances that other celebrities of his stature tend to avoid.
What matters, of course, is the fact of that credibility -- and the fact that it is so closely tied to the farm and rural issues that have meaning even in the more urbanized regions of Iowa. That is why, if there is an endorsement that is going to have meaning with the people who drive down country roads to attend caucuses Thursday night, it could well be that of the guy who proudly sings that, "I was born in a small town..."