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Feingold to Senate: The Iraq War Still Matters

A warm, hearty bowl of kudos to Sen. Feingold for continuing to push Senate debate on the Iraq War. This week, the Senate will take up two of Feingold's bills. One would require troop redeployment and after 120 days would limit troop activities to tracking Al Qaeda, personnel security and training duties. The other requires the Bush administration to submit to Congress a plan for fighting Al Qaeda globally (wait--you mean no one at the White House has come up with that yet?) and would also limit military reserve deployment.

Getting the Senate to talk about the issue wasn't easy: Feingold only secured the promise of the roll call vote last year after backing off a threatened filibuster of a Defense authorization bill. And sure, there's little chance the measures will garner the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.

But with Joseph Stiglitz's latest projection of the war's costs ballooning to $3 trillion, it's nice to know that some members of Congress are still paying attention.

Ralph: Don't Run!

Dear Ralph,

Your decision to run for President as a third-party candidate in 2008leads me to resend our Open Letter to you, published in The Nation in2004.

As we wrote then, "you've been part of The Nation family for a longtime, from the day in 1959 when we published one of your first articles,the expose of "The Safe Car You Can't Buy." We think of you as PublicCitizen Number One--a courageous advocate for consumer rights who hasconsistently challenged predatory corporate power. But your greatstrength-- and success--as a crusader has come from working outside ofelectoral politics.

Ralph, why run in 2008, when the stakes are clear, with John McCaincalling for continuing the war for 100 years and sustaining the Busheconomic policies that have ruined our country? To expose the issue ofballot access as a civil rights issue? It should be exposed. But why notuse your pulpit and street cred as Citizen Number One, not as acandidate, to drive this issue, and others progressives care about, intoour public debate and campaign? When the overwhelming mass ofprogressive voters have only one focus--beating back another disastrousfour or eight years of conservative rule--your perceived role as aspoiler is likely to attract far more attention than the valuable issuesyou raise. As we wrote in 2004, by running, "your efforts to raiseneglected issues will hit a deafening headwind."

Then there is the generational issue. I suspect that millions,especially young people who have been energized and politicized byBarack Obama's campaign, who might otherwise listen to (and benefitfrom) the issues you've championed as Public Citizen Number One will tune out andturn off Candidate Nader. For someone who inspired a generation ofNader's Raiders and mobilized a new generation of voters to flock toyour "super rallies" in 2000, think of how much more you could do toinform and engage a new generation if you did not run for President thisyear.

Look around: no one, including former strong supporters, called on youto run this year. Doesn't that deafening silence say something? In 2004,the last time you ran, in a year with the largest turnout of voters inrecent history, you received only 0.3 percent of the nationwide vote--down from 2.7 percent in 2000. And this year, as a result ofbeyond-the-beltway progressives driving their issues to the forefront ofthe Democratic agenda, both candidates pledge to bring the troopshome,to push for national health insurance, to reinvest in America, rollback tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations and use that money inthe drive for new energy, affordable college, investment in education.The stakes in 2008 are clear.

You, above all, understand that until we bust open this duopoly--and its barriers to candidate access and citizen participation--your candidacy may appear to millions as having more to do with ego than changing this country. This country needs Ralph Nader to be Public Citizen Number One--not apresidential candidate after eight years of disastrous war and ruinouseconomic policy. Lead a Democracy Reconstruction project! Become acrusading duopoly buster--fighting to rewire the anti-democratichardwiring of our political system.

We respect the historic contributions you've made to make this a better and safer nation. We know you've never been one to back down from afight. But when devotion to principle collides with electoral politics,hard truths must be faced. This run may well jeopardize your legacy. Ifyou get even fewer votes than last time, the media may say it means yourissues were not important.

As we wrote in 2004, in our Open Letter below, "For the good of thecountry, the many causes you've championed and for your own good name,don't run for President this year."

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An Open Letter to Ralph NaderBy The EditorsDear Ralph,

According to the latest newsreports, you've pushed up your self-imposed deadline for announcingyour decision about an independent 2004 presidential campaign fromthe end of January to mid-February. We're glad to hear that, becausemaybe it means you're still not sure about the best path to follow.For the good of the country, the many causes you've championed andfor your own good name--don't run for President thisyear.

Ralph, you've been part of the Nation familyfor a long time, from the day in 1959 we published one of your firstarticles, the exposé of "The Safe Car You Can't Buy."Since then, you've been a consistent advocate for active citizenship,investigative scholarship and environmental stewardship. It wasn'thype when we called you Public Citizen Number One.

We knowyou've never been one to back down from a fight. When people tell youyou can't do something, if you think it's the right thing to do, youdo it anyway. That stubborn devotion to principle is one of yourgreatest strengths. It inspired a generation of Nader's Raiders inthe 1960s and '70s, it helped produce notable victories like thecreation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the OccupationalSafety & Health Administration, and it inspired a new generationof young people who flocked to your "super rallies" in 2000. Theissues you raise on your website, NaderExplore04.org--full publicfinancing of elections, new tools to help citizens band together,ending poverty, universal healthcare, a living wage, a crackdown oncorporate crime--are vital to the long-term health of our country.When those issues are given scant attention by major-party candidatesand ignored or trivialized by the sham joint candidate appearancesknown as presidential debates, we join in your outrage.

Butwhen devotion to principle collides with electoral politics, hardtruths must be faced. Ralph, this is the wrong year for you to run:2004 is not 2000. George W. Bush has led us into an illegalpre-emptive war, and his defeat is critical. Moreover, the odds ofthis becoming a race between Bush and Bush Lite are almost nil. For avariety of reasons--opposition to the war, Bush's assault on theConstitution, his crony capitalism, frustration with the overcautiousand indentured approach of inside-the-Beltway Democrats--there is alevel of passionate volunteerism at the grassroots of the DemocraticParty not seen since 1968.

The context for an independentpresidential bid is completely altered from 2000, when there was areal base for a protest candidate. The overwhelming mass of voterswith progressive values--who are essential to all efforts to build aforce that can change the direction of the country--have only onefocus this year: to beat Bush. Any candidacy seen as distracting fromthat goal will be excoriated by the entire spectrum of potentiallyprogressive voters. If you run, you will separate yourself, probablyirrevocably, from any ongoing relationship with this energized massof activists. Look around: Almost no one, including former strongsupporters, is calling for you to run, compared with past years whenmany veteran organizers urged you on.

If you run, yourefforts to raise neglected issues will hit a deafening headwind. Themedia will frame you as The Spoiler. It's also safe to predict thatyou will get far fewer votes than the 2.8 million you garnered in2000, and not only because your rejection of the Green Party raisesexpensive new hurdles to getting your name on state ballots. A recentonline survey by the progressive news site AlterNet.org found thatonly one in nine respondents said they'd vote for you if you run thisyear, a 60 percent drop-off from the number who said they voted foryou in 2000. If you run and get a million votes or fewer, the mediawill say it means your issues were not important. This can only hurtthose causes, not to mention the tangible costs another run mayimpose on the many public-interest groups tied to you.

Youhave said your candidacy could actually help Democrats by raisingissues against Bush that a Democratic candidate would avoid and byboosting turnout for good candidates for the House and Senate, wherethe slender bulwarks against Bushism must be reinforced. But thesearguments do not compel a candidacy by you. As a public citizenfighting for open debates and rallying voters to support progressiveDemocrats for Congress, or good independents or Greens for thatmatter, you can have a far more productive impact than as a candidatedealing with recriminations about being a spoiler or, worse, anegotist. And the very progressives distressed by the prospect of yourcandidacy would contribute eagerly to have that voiceamplified.

And if you think that this year you can help theanti-Bush cause by running and peeling off disgruntled Republicans,McCainiacs, Perotistas and the like while not disrupting theDemocratic charge, please be honest with yourself. Once upon a time,maybe as late as 1992, when you dallied with a "none of the above"campaign and got 2 percent of the vote in New Hampshire fromwrite-ins in both the Democratic and Republican primaries, yourappeal stretched across the political spectrum. No longer, alas. Yournephew, Tarek Milleron, wrote recently that if you run in 2004 itwill be "the year of the Elks clubs, the garden clubs, meetings withformer Enron employees, the veterans groups, Wal-Mart employees," notprogressive super rallies. But how many Elks club presidents areinviting you to speak? How many veterans groups? Such relationshipstake time to build and can't be conjured out of thin air in the midstof a presidential campaign.

You once told us you play chessat many levels at once. For all we know, you're thinking of runninghard and then, if the race is close, throwing your support to theDemocrat in the final days. While such a tactic might make for asatisfying conclusion to an otherwise futile quest, we don't think itjustifies the risks, antagonism, confusion and contortions that sucha run would entail.

Ralph, please think of the long term. Don't run.

No Link Between Poison and Agent Orange

It's not easy suing big and powerful U.S. companies on U.S. soil and under the U.S. court system.

But even after Vietnamese plaintiffs were rebuffed last Friday when New York's US Court of Appeals dismissed their claims against Dow Chemical Company, Monsanto and nearly 30 other manufacturers of "Agent Orange," they're not giving up. Their next stage of appeal is likely to be the U.S. Supreme Court.

While in 1984, seven companies (including Dow and Monsanto) agreed to a $180 million settlement with U.S. veterans who suffered from Agent Orange, no Vietnamese has ever received compensation. The United States maintains there is no scientifically proven link between the 79 million liters of Agent Orange the U.S. dropped during the Vietnam War and the dioxin poisoning of over 3 million Vietnamese.

The U.S. government is also claiming sovereign immunity in the case.

Still Guarding the (Hen)House

It's a peculiar notion, the idea that only members of Congress should be able to bring ethics complaints against other Congressmen. But well over a year after the Democrats stormed Capitol Hill promising ethics reform, that's precisely the way Congress continues to function.

Such insular self-policing, not surprisingly, lends itself to discipline both spotty and toothless. Take, for example, the "bipartisan letter of admonition" the Senate issued this month to Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), which did no more than chide the lately discomfited official for his actions--which, beyond his 'lewd conduct' in an airport bathroom, included the dubious use of $213,000 in campaign contributions to fund his legal defense associated with the incident.

House investigations are still more limp-handed. Last May, House Democrats voted along party lines to block the censure of Rep. John Murtha (D-Pennsylvania), who stood accused of violating a new ethics rule that prohibits lawmakers from swapping votes for pork.

Last week, however, the criminal indictment of Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Az.) seemed to revive the House momentum for reform. "I think the time has come to have an independent entity," said Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass), who heads the House taskforce exploring the creation of an independent ethics panel.

After scads of bipartisan scandals, with Congress's approval ratings languishing at 22%, most Americans long ago reached that conclusion.

The Wedge Issue That Wasn't

Call it the "Yes, That Too is About Immigration" platform.

For the past two years, House Republicans jockeying for support at the ballot box have worked strenuously to knit the issue of immigration into seemingly every issue that reaches the floor. A federal housing bill? Mortgage reform? Native American housing assistance? All bills vitally linked to illegal immigrants, says the GOP.

Chief among the GOP's tools is the motion to recommit, by which a minority member can propose a last-minute amendment to a bill during the final floor vote--which, if rejected, effectively kills the entire legislation. Often, the GOP's amendments have simply reiterated immigration laws that are already exist (for example, by inserting redundant language stressing undocumented immigrants' ineligibility for public housing). But in using the maneuver, says Marshall Fitz, advocacy director for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, House Republicans are "forcing Democrats to take tough votes that divide or embarrass the party," all while throwing political red meat to party conservatives.

A nifty set of tricks, but so far, the immigration-as-wedge tactic hasn't proved terribly effective. In 2006, harsh restrictionist House Republicans like J.D. Hayworth were trounced. Last year, state elections in Virginia and New York--where controversy over issues like drivers' licenses for immigrants became something of a fury--similarly failed to deliver electoral returns for the GOP.

And yet House Republicans still don't seem inclined to give up the game. Even with the much-touted bipartisan nature of the House's January stimulus package, Republicans didn't pass up the chance to needle Democrats about illegal immigrants being eligible for tax rebates. (They weren't.)

But any way you slice the potential short-term House dividends, alienating a Latino electorate that's grown by 2 million in the past three years alone--particularly in key swing states like New Mexico and Ohio--is a terrible, no-good, very bad political strategy. No wonder Bush and Rove have taken a more conciliatory approach to the issue. And if McCain has any hope of redeeming his party's prospects this fall, so will he.

TPM Getting Its Due

Congrats to Josh Marshall and the TPM Crew for some well-deserved recognition.

Welcome to J Street

After several months of preparing and brainstorming names, we're pleased to introduce our new blog from the nation's capital: J Street.

What's the name mean? Well, if you walk north from the Mall, Washington DC's streets ascend in alphabetical order. That is, until you get to I street, which is followed somewhat mysteriously by K Street, the (in)famous address of Washington's ruling lobbyist class. Legend has it that District planner Pierre-Charles L'enfant omitted J Street out of contempt for Supreme Court Justice and proto-abolitionist John Jay.

The real reason probably had more to do with typography than ideology, but the missing J street is a fitting metaphor for all the things that should be in the nation's capital but aren't: voices that are marginalized or ignored, ideas deemed too radical or politically unpopular to garner note, movements that are elided or dismissed.

That's what we cover here in the magazine's Washington bureau. I'll be posting here regularly along with my Washington-based colleague Te-Ping Chen. We'll be adding more contributors in the future, so add us to your RSS reader or just check back often.

Nader Runs, Obama Responds Wisely

Ralph Nader is running again for president.

After four previous bids, mounted in varying forums and with varying goals, Nader is used to the slings and arrows that will be tossed his way. He is conscious and committed. He will not back off.

He knows how to campaign in the face of a firestorm of criticism.

Above all, he knows how to make himself heard -- even when almost everyone who guides the political processes of the nation wants to shut him up.

The latter knowledge will serve him well in a 2008 contest where the man who is either a national treasure or a national frustration, or perhaps both, may find himself more marginalized than ever before.

Nader is running for the same reason he has run in the past: Because the likely nominees of the two major parties do not begin to meet the standards that might reasonably be asked of progressive contenders in 21st-century America.

Fundamental issues -- Wall Street-defined globalization, rampant and frequently deadly corporate crime, out-of-control military spending and an imperial foreign policy -- are not going to be addressed in a realistic let alone definitional manner by the Democratic nominee (be he Barack Obama or be she Hillary Clinton) or by Republican John McCain. And that, says Nader, will leave millions of Americans feeling frustrated and disenfranchised.

"You take that framework of people feeling locked out, shut out, marginalized and disrespected," he explained on NBC's "Meet the Press," the same forum where he announced his 2004 presidential run. "You go from Iraq, to Palestine to Israel, from Enron to Wall Street, from Katrina to the bumbling of the Bush administration, to the complicity of the Democrats in not stopping him on the war, stopping him on the tax cuts."

Nader's points are all well taken.

And they come from a man who is quite rational in his awareness that he will not be sworn in as president on January 20, 2009.

While Nader has yet to determine whether he will run as the Green Party candidate, a Green-backed independent or a genuinely unaffiliated independent, he is clear about his chances.

The arc of history bends toward Obama and the Democrats, not his candidacy, acknowledges Nader.

After eight years of George Bush and Dick Cheney, he said, "If the Democrats can't landslide the Republicans this year, they ought to just wrap up, close down, emerge in a different form. You think the American people are going to vote for a pro-war John McCain who almost gives an indication he's the candidate for perpetual war?"

Presumably, the Democratic landslide that buries McCain will also sweep away various and sundry third-party and independent candidacies, including Nader's.

If that is the case, it will not be a new phenomenon.

Nader has bid for the presidency in different ways in every election since 1992 -- as a write-in candidate in the New Hampshire and Massachusetts primaries of that year, as a Green contender in 1996 and 2000 and as an independent with support from some of what remained of Ross Perot's Reform Party in 2004. His most notable run, in 2000, won 2.7 percent of the national vote, along with anger from Democrats who thought he "spoiled" their chances by tipping Florida -- and the presidency -- from Al Gore to George Bush. In fact, Gore won Florida, only to have the results manipulated into Bush's column by the Republican nominee's many allies in state government, with an assist from the Supreme Court.

In the intense 2004 competition between Bush and Democratic John Kerry, Nader's run won just 0.3 percent on 34 state ballot lines.

This year, Nader could have a harder time of it even than he did in 2000 or 2004.

Unlike Gore and Kerry, Obama -- now the likely Democratic nominee -- has taken savvier stands on a number of issues close to Nader's heart, such as trade policy. This is not to say that Obama is as good as Nader on the issues. Far from it. But Obama's more nuanced platform, as well as the movement character of the Illinois senator's campaign, is likely to leave even less space for Nader to deliver a message.

That said, Nader is a determined, sometimes unrelenting, truth teller.

He notes that Obama is something less than a pristine progressive.

Obama may be "the first liberal evangelist in a long time," says Nader, but the senator's "better instincts and knowledge have been censored" since he hit the nation stage.

"(Obama's) leaned, if anything, toward the pro-corporate side of policy-making," Nader said of the senator from Illinois. The consumer activist also scored Obama on on foreign policy, noting that, "He was pro-Palestinian when he was in Illinois... Now he's supporting (right-wing Israeli policies that thwart progress toward peace in the Middle East)."

Such blunt statements may not win Nader many friends among Obama's enthusiastic backers, and Obama did not exactly welcome his new rival to the race. "Ralph Nader deserves enormous credit for the work he did as a consumer advocate," Mr. Obama said while campaigning in Ohio "But his function as a perennial candidate is not putting food on the table of workers."

But Nader's not looking for Valentines from the Democrats.

Frankly, he's not even all that interested in popular approval.

The public-interest crusader worries far less about poll numbers and even vote totals than about saying what he feels needs to be said -- and using the forum of the electoral process to say it. And he is certainly not the first progressive -- inside the Democratic Party or out -- to suggest that Obama needs to be prodded on issues ranging from labor law to corporate regulation to single-payer health care and Middle East policy.

Nader's greatest value in any race is -- like Socialist Norman Thomas in his races against Democratic Franklin Roosevelt -- as a source of pressure on the Democratic nominee to address fundamental questions and perhaps to take more progressive stands on a few issues. As in 2000 and 2004, Nader's appeal will be determined in large part by the extent to which the Democratic candidate is willing to be bold.

Obama seems to understands this. Unlike Gore or Kerry, who never quite "got" the point of Nader's runs in 2000 and 2004, the Illinois senator appears to recognize that it is pointless to grumble about Ralph Nader as a "spoiler." Rather, the point is to be more appealing to progressive voters who might consider voting Green or independent.

"I think the job of the Democratic Party is to be so compelling that a few percentage [points] of the vote going to another candidate is not going to make any difference," says Obama.

That is the bottom line with regard to Nader's latest bid.

If Obama runs as a progressive, Nader will have little room to maneuver. If Obama runs to the center, Nader's space will open up -- a bit.

McCain May Be Old, but He's Still a Threat

Liberal smarties and sophisticates are having fun mocking John McCain , but assuming he gets the nomination, he will a formidable candidate. He may look like a grumpy old man -- specifically, as my friend Kathleen Geier joked, the grumpy old man who yells at kids to get off his lawn -- or the nutty old uncle who rags on everyone at Thanksgiving before passing out in front of the football game. But that's another way of saying McCain is a familiar, indeed family, character. It does not require an imaginative stretch to get John McCain. How many voters know someone like Barack Obama?

McCain is white, male, patriarchal, a war hero with decades in the Senate. So what if he's old? In politics old can be good ( for men), especially to the older voters -- older white voters -- who dominate the polls. Besides, McCain's not so old that he couldn't get himself a much younger trophy wife, and even if Cindy McCain looks brittle and unhappy and like she hasn't eaten in a decade, she is always there by his side, a visual reminder of his manly prowess. McCain is brash and sly and seemingly unguarded, unlike the famously self-protective Hillary Clinton, and he loves to schmooze with reporters, who adore him and like most of the rest of America, refuse to see how conservative he is. It's like they're saying, Oh go on, Uncle John! you're just saying you love Sam Alito to get me riled up!

Obama v. McCain could be change/youth/black/exciting/internationalist against experience/maturity/white/steady/superpatriot. Put that way, it could come down to how many white male Democrats, who might vote for Hillary, won't vote for a black man, let alone one whose middle name is Hussein. They won't care about McCain's favors for business --too complicated, and anyway everyone does it -- and they certainly won't care if he had an affair with lovely lobbyist Vicki Iseman, as the New York Times sorta-kinda suggested. They might like him even better for that.

We've been patting ourselves on the back a lot for having a black and a woman vying for top spot on the ticket of one of the two major parties. November will tell us whether or not we have really come all that far.