The Nation

After Busby: Almost is Not Enough

Democrats keep talking about moral victories this election cycle. But to take back the Congress in 2006, they'll need to convert symbolic wins into actual ones.

In a normal election cycle, Republicans would've handily defeated Paul Hackett in Ohio (who was narrowly defeated by Republican Jean Schmidt in a special election last August) and Francine Busby in California. Busby lost to Republican Brian Bilbray in a special election last night by 49 to 45 percent, in heavily Republican districts. But this is not a typical political year, and for Democrats to take back the House or the Senate, they must pick up seats in places like Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

The results last night in San Diego's 50th district prove the GOP's resolve. Republicans are still better at winning elections than Democrats are. Democrats had two months to try and increase Busby's total above the 44 percent she took in the crowded April primary, the same number John Kerry garnered in the conservative district. Those numbers barely moved, and turnout remained especially low.

Perhaps more disconcerting for Democrats, illegal immigration seemed to matter more than the "culture of corruption" message Busby hammered in Duke Cunningham's former district.

In 2004, Democrats and progressives were convinced that they had a better turnout operation than Republicans did, and the country was as anti-Bush as they were. The country's appetite for Republicans has certainly soured since then, but it's way too early to begin calling Nancy Pelosi "Speaker," as some Democrats are already doing.

A note of caution, after a long political night.

Citizens 1, Corporations 0

In states across the country Tuesday, primary elections named candidates for Congress, governorships and other important offices. But the most interesting, and perhaps significant, election did not involve an individual. Rather, it was about an idea.

In Northern California's Humboldt County, voters decided by a 55-45 margin that corporations do not have the same rights -- based on the supposed "personhood" of the combines -- as citizens when it comes to participating in local political campaigns.

Until Tuesday in Humboldt County, corporations were able to claim citizenship rights, as they do elsewhere in the United States. In the context of electoral politics, corporations that were not headquartered in the county took advantage of the same rules that allowed individuals who are not residents to make campaign contributions in order to influence local campaigns.

But, with the passage of Measure T, an initiative referendum that was placed on the ballot by Humboldt County residents, voters have signaled that they want out-of-town corporations barred from meddling in local elections.

Measure T was backed by the county's Green and Democratic parties, as well as labor unions and many elected officials in a region where politics are so progressive that the Greens -- whose 2004 presidential candidate, David Cobb, is a resident of the county and a active promotor of the challenges to corporate power mounted by Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County and the national Liberty Tree Foundation -- are a major force in local politics.

The "Yes on T" campaign was rooted in regard for the American experiment, from its slogan "Vote Yes for Local Control of Our Democracy," to the references to Tuesday's election as a modern-day "Boston Tea Party," to the quote from Thomas Jefferson that was highlighted in election materials: "I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

Just as Jefferson and his contemporaries were angered by dominance of the affairs of the American colonies by King George III and the British business combines that exploited the natural and human resources of what would become the United States -- and wary of the machinations of those who would establish an American economic royalism -- so Humboldt County residents were angered by the attempts of outside corporate interests to dominate local politics.

Wal-Mart spent $250,000 on a 1999 attempt to change the city of Eureka's zoning laws in order to clear the way for one of the retail giant's big-box stores. Five years later, MAXXAM Inc., a forest products company, got upset with the efforts of local District Attorney Paul Gallegos to enforce regulations on its operations in the county and spent $300,000 on a faked-up campaign to recall him from office. The same year saw outside corporations that were interested in exploiting the county's abundant natural resources meddling in its local election campaigns.

That was the last straw for a lot of Humboldt County residents. They organized to put Measure T on the ballot, declaring, "Our Founding Fathers never intended corporations to have this kind of power."

"Every person has the right to sign petition recalls and to contribute money to political campaigns. Measure T will not affect these individual rights," explained Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, a resident of Eureka who was one of the leaders of the Yes on T campaign. "But individuals hold these political rights by virtue of their status as humans in a democracy and, simply put, a corporation is not a person."

Despite the logic of that assessment, the electoral battle in Humboldt County was a heated one, and Measure T's passage will not end it. Now, the corporate campaign will move to the courts. So this is only a start. But what a monumental start it is!

Sopoci-Belknap was absolutely right when she portrayed Tuesday's vote as nothing less than the beginning of "the process of reclaiming our county" from the "tyranny" of concentrated economic and political power.

Surely Tom Paine would have agreed. It was Paine who suggested to the revolutionaries of 1776, as they dared challenge the most powerful empire on the planet, that: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation similar to the present hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of the new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months."

It is time to renew the American experiment, to rebuild its battered institutions on the solid foundation of empowered citizens and regulated corporations. Let us hope that the spirit of '76 prevailed Tuesday in Humboldt County will spread until that day when American democracy is guided by the will of the people rather than the campaign contribution checks of the corporations that are the rampaging "empires" of our age.

Quarantine the Religious Right

Happy 6/6/06! Congrats to Ann Coulter for releasing her book on this Satanic date. And speaking of superstitious madness, as long as we're putting dangerous public health threats under quarantine, let's not forget the religious lunatics. As my colleague Richard Kim has been writing, U.S. HIV/AIDS policy shows that the sexual hysteria of the religious right can have lethal consequences. The political morass surrounding Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is another example. On Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve a vaccine for the two strains of HPV which cause 70 percent of all cervical cancers. The American Cancer Society estimates that this year, over 9,700 women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer and some 3,700 will die from it. So this vaccine could save thousands of lives.

What's been holding this bold new innovation back? Moral panic. The religious right initially opposed it on the grounds that protecting people from an STD would undermine the no-sex-before-marriage message. After all, what could reinforce that message better than the threat of death? Even groups like Focus on the Family have dropped their opposition to the vaccine itself -- probably realizing their position would seem indefensible to most thinking people, and that this was a battle they were going to lose -- but they're still fighting a proposal to make it mandatory for public junior high school students. This is also an appallingly irresponsible position, but one much easier to sell to the public, as it exploits deep anxieties about children and sex. According to the Centers for Disease Control, and most scientists who study HPV, the vaccine is most effective if given before kids become sexually active, so let's hope the cooler heads prevail. In any case, the fact that the Bush FDA has agreed to approve this vaccine at all represents at least a temporary victory over the forces of reaction and ignorance.

Parlez Vous DeLay?

We knew Tom DeLay was leaving Congress this week. But we didn't think he'd be so French about it.

Yes, tonight Texas Republicans will be toasting their former majority leader at Le Paradou, billed as "DC's finest contemporary French restaurant."

We suggest he dines on the caged quail (specially shot by Dick Cheney). Maybe he can ask Jean Marie Le Pen for a good red.

DeLay once excelled at the time-honored profession of mocking the French. He began speeches during the 2004 campaign by saying: "Good afternoon, or, as John Kerry might say, 'Bonjour.'" When Senator Tom Daschle criticized President Bush's cowboy diplomacy, DeLay responded: "Fermez la bouche, Monsier Daschle."

Rough translation: shut up.

But now The Hammer is returning to his roots. Asked about the restaurant selection, DeLay's spokeswoman quipped, "I trust that you know Mr. DeLay is French."

Bon Appetite! And, from the bottom of our hearts, Au Revoir!

Keep the Estate Tax--UPDATED

Updated on June 8.

Good News:

Senators voted this afternoon to block a Republican effort to shrink taxes on inherited estates during this election year. GOP leaders had pushed senators to end the tax once and for all. It disappears in 2010, under President Bush's first tax cut, but rears up again a year later. A 57-41 vote fell three votes short of advancing the bill.

As William Greider and Katrina vanden Heuvel have both noted in recent Nation weblog posts, the Senate is close to pulling off another massive giveaway to the country's super-rich by eliminating the inheritance tax.

This change in the tax code would benefit less than half of one percent of American citizens but would harm many more by creating a one trillion dollar hole in future federal reserves. New handouts to the rich are especially galling coming right after Congress has cut Medicaid, child support, and college loans. But 18 super wealthy families, standing to benefit from the repeal to the tune of 72 billion dollars, have spent millions on the effort. The Senate is expected to soon vote on legislation to either repeal or drastically cut the estate tax. Reports suggest that a vote could come as early as Thursday, June 8.

This fight can be won. The bill's sponsors need 60 votes to bring the estate tax repeal/gutting to the floor, and, if they know you're paying attention, the votes will be hard to drum up. Please make every effort to let your elected reps know that you expect them to stand against repeal of the estate tax. Click here to email them and take the time to join United for a Fair Economy's campaign and call your Senators this week before it's too late. Call toll-free at 1-800-830-5738 to reach the US Capitol switchboard and ask to be connected to your Senators' offices. Call twice--once for each Senator.

BACKGROUND: The reality of the estate tax is frequently misrepresented by its critics. Here's a little cogent background on the tax, thanks to Stephen Wamhoff in the Sacramento Bee.

"The estate tax was enacted 90 years ago to curb the most extreme inequalities of wealth and to help fund public programs that all Americans, including the wealthy, enjoy. The tax applies to only the largest estates. Only those bigger than $2 million, or $4 million for married couples, pay any tax at all. In addition, family farms and businesses get special, favorable treatment. As a result, of the 2.5 million people expected to die this year, only one in 300 will leave a taxable estate."

Defending the Constitution (Continued)

Kudos to the American Bar Association for creating a bipartisan "all-star legal panel" to investigate President Bush's penchant for signing statements that assert his right to ignore more than 750 laws enacted since he took office.

Bush has challenged more laws than every previous president combined.

The blue-ribbon panel includes former officials from the Reagan, Bush Sr., and Nixon administrations. Panel-member William Sessions, who served as FBI Director under Presidents Reagan and Bush, told the Boston Globe that he believes the signing statements raise a "serious problem" for our constitutional system.

"I think it's very important for the people of the United States to have trust and reliance that the president is not going around the law," Sessions said.

Now there's a novel idea for this administration run amok--adherence to the separation of powers, and our system of checks and balances. Among the laws Bush has challenged are the ban on torture, oversight of the Patriot Act, and whistleblower protections.

The panel will make its recommendations to the over 400,000-member ABA this summer. Here's hoping this bipartisan effort makes some headway in the critical fight to defend our Constitution from those who would treat it as nothing more than a matter of convenience.

Flying the Corporate Skies

A top official in the Bush Administration, David Safavian, is on trial right now for lying about a golfing trip to Scotland taken by a lawmaker, Rep. Bob Ney, and funded by a lobbyist, Jack Abramoff.

What's unusual about this story is the fact that a White House official tried to cover it up. Lobbyist-funded travel is standard operating procedure for lawmakers in Washington. In fact, a new study released today found that lawmakers and their aides, Republicans and Democrats alike, spent $50 million on privately funded travel between 2000-2005.

That amounts to 23,000 trips and 81,000 days (or 222 years) of travel, to such popular locales as Paris, Italy and Hawaii. The top offenders, whose offices accepted more than $350,000 in travel costs, include powerhouse Republicans like Tom DeLay, Joe Barton and Roy Blunt, and sleazy Dems such as DLC-favorite Greg Meeks.

"Some trips seem to have been little more than pricey vacations," writes the Center for Public Integrity, the study's lead author. "In many instances, trip sponsors appear to be buying access to elected officials or their advisers."

Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert proposed a ban on such travel after Abramoff pled guilty in January. But incoming Majority Leader John Boehner, another frequent flier, quickly nixed the idea. Under the new lobbying "reform" bill passed by the House, these trips must be cleared by the dormant House Ethics Committee--until December that is, when the provision conveniently expires after the midterm elections.

The abuse is bipartisan. "Of the two dozen congressional offices on which trip sponsors spent the most money, 15 were occupied by Republicans," the study found. "Of the 25 individual lawmakers who each accepted more than $120,000 worth of travel for themselves, 17 were Democrats."

This system, not surprisingly, breeds special favors, also known as corruption. One small San Diego-based defense contractor, General Dynamics, spent more than $660,000 on 86 trips for Capitol Hill legislators and aides. General Dynamics enjoyed close ties to indicted Rep. Duke Cunningham and House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, whose lobbying firm of choice, Copeland Lowery, is also under investigation by the FBI.

Countless similar tales, no doubt, are waiting to be told.

Gore Vidal Campaigns for "A Real Democrat"

Gore Vidal, the grandson of a senator who stood himself for the House and Senate and then played a senator in Tim Robbins' brilliant film "Bob Roberts," has been campaigning this spring -- almost as hard as if he was once again on the ballot.

The author, resident in Los Angeles, has thrown himself into the campaign of Marcy Winograd, the teacher and progressive activist who is mounting a spirited challenge to Bush-friendly Democratic Representative Jane Harman for an L.A.-area House seat in today's California Democratic primary.

Harman, who voted to authorize President Bush to order the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and who has supported the administration repeatedly in divisions on issues ranging from the Patriot Act to warrantless wiretapping and domestric surveillance, is trying to sell herself as a generally solid Democrat who should be forgiven her lapses.

Vidal, displaying the knowing skepticism that is his greatest contribution to the American political discourse, is unwilling to accept the incumbent's election-season spin.

"The all important issues are the war and civil liberties," says the social critic who has appeared at a number of Winograd fund-raising events and rallies, including an election-eve gathering in Venice. "I'm not even interested in Harman's other issues. She has been wrong on the war, and the war is such a fundamental issue."

In fact, Harman's been wrong on a host of other issues. For instance, she's been such a disappointing player on trade policy and related economic concerns that the United Auto Workers [Western Region] has joined several other unions -- including the United Farm Workers of America, United Teachers of Los Angeles and the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers -- in taking the rare step of endorsing a challenge to a Democratic incumbent in a primary election. But Vidal's right that the distinction on the war is fundamental; as Winograd says: "I will vote to end the war in Iraq and to bring our troops home. Harman will not."

Vidal is not merely anti-Harman, however. He is pro-Winograd. Noting the challenger's clear vision with regard to foreign policy, her consistent critique of the domestic eavesdropping programs so favored by the current administration, and her pledge to hold Bush accountable -- using all the means available to a member of Congress, up to and including the option of impeachment -- the author labels her "a real Democrat" and suggests that she is the sort of candidate who might inspire the party's broad if frequently disenchanted base.

"Marcy Winograd's election would teach a lesson all around," Vidal told me the other day. "The Democratic Party is theoretically a minority but in reality is always the majority in the country. When Democrats vote, and when their votes are actually counted, which is of course an issue of some concern with these Diebold [voting] machines, they prevail. But we have been in a rough period where that has not been the case. Now, we are told that this is about to change, that this will be a good year for Democrats. Perhaps. But it does no good that a Jane Harman will benefit from a Democratic year -- which it looks like this is going to be -- when we can dump her and get a real Democrat to take her place."

Bush: Discrimination 'Serves Interests of All'

President Bush has framed his support for a Constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage as a necessary defense of cherished institutions and practices.

"Marriage is the most enduring and important human institution, honored and encouraged in all cultures and by every religious faith," the president said Monday. "Ages of experience have taught us that the commitment of a husband and a wife to love and to serve one another promotes the welfare of children and the stability of society. Marriage cannot be cut off from its cultural, religious, and natural roots without weakening this good influence on society. Government, by recognizing and protecting marriage, serves the interests of all."So, you see, denying citizens who love one another and want their relationships to be sanctioned, respected and protected by the state is in everyone's interest – even, Bush assures us, the interest of those who because of their sexual orientation do not meet with this particular president's approval.

Gee, where have we heard this logic before?

Oh, yes, back in 1914, after President Woodrow Wilson dramatically expanded segregation in the federal civil service, a group of African-American leaders led by newspaper editor Monroe Trotter came to the White House to challenge the decision.

Trotter said, "Mr. President, we are here to renew our protest against the segregation of colored employees in the departments of our National Government. We [had] appealed to you to undo this race segregation in accord with your duty as President and with your pre-election pledges to colored American voters. We stated that such segregation was a public humiliation and degradation, and entirely unmerited and far-reaching in its injurious effects…"

Wilson replied, "Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit, and ought to be so regarded by you gentlemen. If your organization goes out and tells the colored people of the country that it is a humiliation, they will so regard it, but if you do not tell them so, and regard it rather as a benefit, they will regard it the same. The only harm that will come will be if you cause them to think it is a humiliation."

Surely, President Bush would prefer that supporters of equal rights for gays and lesbians accept that the marriage ban "serves the interests of all."

But a more appropriate response is an echo of Monroe Trotter's reply to Woodrow Wilson: "Mr. President, you are entirely mistaken."

George Bush is entirely mistaken if he thinks that his amendment "serves the interests of all," just he is entirely mistaken if he thinks that bigotry – be it motivated by racial hatred, ethnic rivalry, religious intolerance or homophobia – ought to be sanctioned by the Constitution.

Every freedom struggle is different. The specifics of racial segregation are fundamentally different from the specifics of anti-gay discrimination.

Yet the reality of a president leading the charge against equal protection for a specific group of Americans creates a parallel that is undeniable – and that will prove indefensible in the long run.

History has not been kind to Wilson. It will not be kind to Bush.

Despite his attempt to put a friendly face on his embrace of segregation based on race, Woodrow Wilson is appropriately downgraded in any consideration of the relative merits of the nation's presidents because of his hateful acts against people of color who wanted only to do their jobs.

Despite his attempt to put a friendly face on his embrace of discrimination based on sexual orientation, George Bush will be appropriately downgraded in any consideration of the relative merits of the nation's presidents because of his hateful acts against gays and lesbians who want only to have their relationships respected and protected.