To strains of "You're Still The One," Senator Edward Kennedy exited stage left, surrounded by family--heading to a tribute at Boston Symphony Hall. "The only thing we have to fear," he told the cheering crowd, "is four more years of George Bush....We will retire Cheney to an undisclosed location."
Across the river, earlier in this afternoon, Michael Moore nearly caused a riot when some 3,000 people descended on the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge for a confab with America's hottest film-maker. Earlier that day, some Bush spokesman had called Moore "the leader of the hate and vitriol celebrity." Two thousand people were turned away by the organizers--the Campaign for America's Future--but they soon gathered on a side street outside the hotel, awaiting Moore's arrival later that afternoon.
Inside the hall, Moore enthralled the crowd with tales of Dale Earnhardt Jr, tirades against the corporate media, jabs at Disney and its honcho Michael Eisner, advice for John Kerry and a warning to Ralph Nader.
Check out these riffs:
* "The true patriots are those who think it's important to ask tough questions. The villain of my film is George W. but the unstated villains are the national media. My film outs them as shills for the Bush Administration, as people who were cheerleaders for the Bush Administration, as journalists who fell asleep on the job. We the people need you in the media to ask the tough questions. Don't be afraid of being called un-American. It'spro-American to ask the tough questions."
* "Whether they use labels or not, most Americans in their heart are either liberal or progressive. It's only a minority who hate. The people running this country are not patriots, they're hatriots."
* "I predict that we'll see the largest percentage of people voting in our lifetime. It's cool now to talk about politics."
* "Dale Earnhardt Jr took his crew to see Fahrenheit 9-11 to prepare for a big race and then he said all of America should see this movie. Hope Bush wasn't eating pretzels watching that race."
* "Here's my plea to John Kerry and the Democrats. You will not win this election by being wimpy, weak, by failing to stand up for your convictions. Only way this is going to happen is if you stand up for what you believe, stand for a liberal/progressive agenda. If you move to the right you'll encourage millions to stay home."
* A word about Ralph (hisses in the hall)..."Yes, Republicans do love Ralph. Just came from Michigan and Ralph gathered fifty thousand signatures--forty-three of those gathered by Michigan Republicans...Ralph, you already did your job. The Democratic party of 2004 is not the Democratic Party of 2000. They got it. Howard Dean carried on and so did Dennis Kucinich...they helped push Dems to liberal/progressive side. Even the Al Gore of 2004 is not the Al Gore of 2000. My appeal to the Nader voters and Green voters...you have a different job to do this year. What you are doing is so misguided, so uncool. I wouldn't have Dems spend any time attacking Nader. They should be giving those people reasons to vote for Kerry."
Many Americans oppose the war in Iraq, and they want to vote for a party that will bring the troops home. The Democratic Party has not promised to do that, which is why antiwar protesters have gathered in Boston.
They had hoped to stage a series of peaceful protests, to show the Democrats, who are holding their convention in Boston this week, how strongly they feel. The problem is that organizers of the convention have said protesters can gather only in a large wire cage that has been built under Boston's elevated train tracks. It has one entrance and one exit, and is topped by razor wire. As AP reporter Mark Jewell wrote, "The maze of overhead netting, chain link fencing and razor wire couldn't be further in comfort from the high-tech confines of the arena stage where John Kerry is to accept the Democratic nomination for president."
Click here to read a report on the DNC Protest Pit by Caroline Overington from the Sydney Morning Herald and click here to listen to Amy Goodman's Democracy Now!, which is broadcasting live reports on what's happening on the streets of Boston.
Just as I thought they were going to start playing Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen's oldie "Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive (Mister in-Between)" in the convention hall, former President Jimmy Carter came out swinging. God bless him. Seems that Carter--party statesman, nearly 80 years old--didn't have to run the gauntlet of DNC apparatchiks screening speeches for any harsh anti-Bush rhetoric. Carter spoke forthrightly, deploring the fact that the "Middle East is ablaze," and blasting Bush's extremism, deceit and exploitation of American's fears.
As America's 39th President, rightly insisted, "the Middle East peace process has come to a screeching halt for the first time since Israel became a nation. All former presidents, Democratic and Republican, have attempted to secure a comprehensive peace for Israel with hope and justice for the Palestinians." That is until 43. (Click here to read the full text of Carter's remarks.)
BOSTON -- The Democratic party platform that will be adopted this week includes one particularly significant change from the platforms adopted by the party conventions of 1992, 1996 and 2000. During the platform-writing process, the drafting committee quietly removed the section of the document that endorsed capital punishment. Thus, for the first time since the 1980s, Democrats will not be campaigning on a pro-death penalty program.
Why the change?
Simply put, on the question of execution, John Kerry is a very different Democrat from Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Clinton and Gore, while surely aware that capital punishment is an ineffective and racially and economically biased vehicle for fighting crime, were willing to embrace it as a political tool. When he was running for the presidency in 1992, then Governor Clinton even rushed back to Arkansas during the 1992 campaign to oversee the execution of a mentally-retarded inmate.
With Clinton and Gore steering the party's policies, Democratic platforms explicitly and frequently endorsed capital punishment.
But Clinton and Gore are no longer at the helm. And, as of tonight, the party will no longer be on record as supporting the death penalty. Asked about the removal of the pro-capital punishment language, U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the chair of the committee that drafted the document, explained that, "It's a reflection of John Kerry."
Kerry, who is often accused by his Republican critics of flip-flopping, is made of firmer stuff than most politicians when it comes to the issue of capital punishment. He opposes executions in virtually all cases -- making an exception only after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when he said he would consider supporting capital punishment, in limited cases, for foreign terrorists.
On the domestic front, Kerry has earned high marks from death penalty critics. Last fall, when the Students Against the Death Penalty project of the American Civil Liberties Union rated the nine candidates who were then seeking the Democratic presidential nomination on a variety of death penalty-related issues, Kerry and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich were the only two who received perfect scores.
Kerry opposes the execution of juveniles, supports greater access to DNA testing for death row inmates and argues that studies "reveal serious questions, racial bias, and deep disparities in the way the death penalty is applied." Kerry was a cosponsor of the National Death Penalty Moratorium Act of 2001 and of the National Death Penalty Moratorium Act of 2003.
"I know something about killing," Kerry says, referencing his service in Vietnam as a swift-boat commander. "I don't like killing. That's just a personal belief I have."
Polls show a majority of Americans support the death penalty in at least some instances. But since the late 1980s, enthusiasm for capital punishment has been slipping. Many Americans, including some political leaders such as former Illinois Governor George Ryan, have come to question the morality of state-sponsored executions, as the use of DNA analysis has led to the exoneration of dozens of death-row inmates.
Still, the death penalty remains a divisive issue. Not since 1988 has either major party nominated a critic of capital punishment for the presidency. The 1988 Democratic nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, was attacked by that year's Republican nominee, George Herbert Walker Bush, for opposing the death penalty. Whether Kerry will face similar attacks from Bush's son, an enthusiastic backer and frequent practitioner of state-sponsored executions during his days as governor of Texas, remains to be seen. But the volatility of the issue may explain why Democrats have been so quiet about the shift in platform language.
It is notable, however, that, in addition to Kerry's home state of Massachusetts, eleven other states bar executions. Among them are a number of the battleground states that could decide the November election, including Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Maine and West Virginia.
To bash, or not to bash? Bush, that is. And that is not the question. For it has already been answered. And the answer is, no. But not exactly.
The Kerryniks have decreed that this shall not be a week of overt W. slapping. In press conferences and interviews, Democratic honchos have said that criticizing Bush is not the aim of the convention. They want to use those valuable three hours of primetime coverage to boost John Kerry's positive. During the campaign Kerry freely slapped Bush about. He called Bush's foreign policy the most arrogant, inept and reckless in decades. Yet in campaign speeches on the road to the convention he has barely mentioned that guy he wants to trounce in November. And a chief Kerry strategist told me that "the Bush part of the story is already known. We don't have to talk much about it at this stage. We need to talk about John."
Before the official proceedings began on Monday, I wondered if it was wise for the Democrats to throttle back on the Bushwhacking. After all, I wrote a book entitled The Lies of George W. Bush, and anti-Bushism has been the main fuel of the Democrats' efforts this year. Could it be that the Kerry campaign was spooked by Republicans and conservative pundits, who have tried to characterize vigorous criticism of Bush as irrational "Bush-hatred" and who have attempted to portray Kerry as a doom-and-gloom pessimist?
When Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe opened the convention on Monday evening, it did seem that the Dems were going to go easy on Bush. McAuliffe went vegetarian and stayed clear of red meat. He recited the usual Democratic litany about the Bush years: three million more Americans in poverty, four million more without health insurance, the largest budget deficit ever, the worst jobs-creation record in decades. But his conclusion was gentle: "We can do better." This was not the usual pitbull barking cable TV viewers have come to expect from the chairman.
Former Vice President Al Gore poked at Bush, but without the harshness and anger he has displayed in recent speeches. After reminding the delegates they had to make certain that every vote would be counted in the next election (not that such a reminder was necessary) and running through a series of self-deprecating jokes (he called America "a land of opportunity, where every little boy and girl has a chance to grow up and win the popular vote"), he did note "the way the [Iraq] war has been managed by the administration has gotten us into very serious trouble." And he criticized Bush for "confusing al Qaeda with Iraq." But in his menschy speech, there was no name-calling, no rough stuff. He left the stage without reprising the line he used at the 1992 convention (and which was swiped by Dick Cheney at the 2000 Republican convention): "It is time for them to go."
But then came Jimmy Carter and the Clintons, and it became evident that the Democratic strategy is not to eschew Bush-bashing. Instead, the Democrats are engaging in Bush-bashing without the Bush. That is, they are going after the deeds and the decisions, not the man.
Carter showed how this could be done. He never referred to Bush directly. But he remarked that Kerry "showed up when assigned to [military] duty." Nod, nod, wink, wink. Carter talked about the need for a president who "would not mislead us" and maintained that electing Kerry would "restore the judgment and maturity to our government that is sorely lacking today." He pushed this theme hard: "Truth is the foundation of our global leadership, but our credibility has been shattered and we are left increasingly isolated and vulnerable in a hostile world. Without truth--without trust--America cannot flourish." The crowd cheered when the former president declared, "A cowardly attack on innocent civilians brought us an unprecedented level of cooperation and understanding around the world. But in just 34 months, we have watched with deep concern as all this goodwill has been squandered by a virtually unbroken series of mistakes and miscalculations." Another crowd-pleaser was Carter's observation that "in the world at large we cannot lead if our leaders mislead." He never directly called Bush a liar. But he politely presented a rather sharp indictment of the unnamed president.
Then Hillary Clinton threw several brickbats at you-know-who. Praising John Kerry, she said, "He will lead the world, not alienate it. He will lower the deficit, not raise it. I know that he will create good jobs, not lose them. And he will solve a health care crisis, not ignore it." When she referred to the recently released report of the 9/11 commission, she noted that the 9/11 commission would not have existed had it not been for the persistence of the 9/11 families--which was a dig at Bush, who initially opposed the creation of the commission.
But leave it to Bill Clinton, the political master. In a home-run of a speech, he showed how the Democrats could engage in devastating Bush-bashing while smiling and not becoming disagreeable, shrill or discourteous. He remarked that Kerry and Bush were "two strong men who both love their country." But with wit and passion, he sliced Bush to bits. "We Democrats will bring the American people a positive campaign," Clinton said at the start of his speech, "arguing not who's good and who's bad, but what is the best way to build the safe, prosperous world our children deserve." He sharply contrasted his party with Bush's party:
"We think the role of government is to give people the tools and conditions to make the most of their lives. Republicans believe in an America run by the right people, their people, in a world in which we act unilaterally when we can, and cooperate when we have to."
"They think the role of government is to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of those who embrace their political, economic, and social views, leaving ordinary citizens to fend for themselves on matters like health care and retirement security. Since most Americans are not that far to the right, they have to portray us Democrats as unacceptable, lacking in strength and values. In other words, they need a divided America. But Americans long to be united. After 9/11, we all wanted to be one nation, strong in the fight against terror. The president had a great opportunity to bring us together under his slogan of compassionate conservatism and to unite the world in common cause against terror."
"Instead, he and his congressional allies made a very different choice: to use the moment of unity to push America too far to the right and to walk away from our allies, not only in attacking Iraq before the weapons inspectors finished their jobs, but in withdrawing American support for the Climate Change Treaty, the International Court for war criminals, the ABM treaty, and even the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty."
Then Clinton let loose:
"For the first time ever when America was on a war footing, there were two huge tax cuts, nearly half of which went to the top one percent. I'm in that group now for the first time in my life....They protected my tax cuts while withholding promised funding for the Leave No Child Behind Act, leaving over 2 million children behind; cutting 140,000 unemployed workers out of job training, 100,000 working families out of child care assistance, 300,000 poor children out of after school programs; raising out of pocket healthcare costs to veterans, weakening or reversing important environmental advances for clean air and the preservation of our forests."
"Everyone had to sacrifice except the wealthiest Americans, who wanted to do their part but were asked only to expend the energy necessary to open the envelopes containing our tax cuts. If you agree with these choices, you should vote to return them to the White House and Congress. If not, take a look at John Kerry, John Edwards and the Democrats."
Like a jazz musician, Clinton pushed the riff further. If you agree with the White House decisions to cut police funding and not to push for extending the ban on assault weapons--"they're taking police off the streets and putting assault weapons back on the streets"--then vote for the Republicans. If you agree with the White House's opposition to a bill that would have diverted $1 billion in tax cuts for the rich to a program to boost security inspections of cargo at ports and airports, then vote for the Republicans. "If you think it's good policy to pay for my tax cut with the Social Security checks of working men and women, and borrowed money from China," Clinton said, "vote for them."
Clinton, who was assailed by the right for being a draft-dodger, did not call Bush the same. But he made the point: "During the Vietnam War, many young men--including the current president, the vice president and me--could have gone to Vietnam but didn't. John Kerry came from a privileged background and could have avoided it too. Instead he said, send me."
As he hailed Kerry, Clinton still zinged a certain somebody. "In a time of change," he observed, "[Kerry] has two other important qualities: his insatiable curiosity to understand the forces shaping our lives, and a willingness to hear the views even of those who disagree with him." Now what might Clinton be suggesting about that other fellow? Clinton never explicitly questioned Bush's abilities. But he did say, "Their opponents will tell you to be afraid of John Kerry and John Edwards, because they won't stand up to the terrorists--don't you believe it. Strength and wisdom are not conflicting values--they go hand in hand." That line drew shouts and applause.
After his speech, conservative and liberal commentators (at the parties I attended) concurred that it had been a bravura performance. Clinton was generous in his praise of Kerry and Edwards. But talking up a nominee is not hard for any experienced pol. More importantly, Clinton pummeled Bush in a most sophisticated and effective manner. One need not be a Clinton fan to acknowledge that he showed his party how best to engage in Bush-bashing. It may sound odd coming from me, but it is not necessary to call Bush a "liar" to make the point. Clinton, who was pounded by the right and who had his own problems with truth-telling, demonstrated to his comrades how it is far better for them to wield a stiletto than a sledgehammer when trying to cut up a political foe.
DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is NOW AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research....[I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer....Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."
The Democratic Party is more unified and energized going into this convention than it has ever been.
Say that 50 times in 90 seconds, and you will have an idea of the preconvention message that DNCers--party chairman Terry McAuliffe, convention chair Bill Richardson, and John Kerry spokesperson Stephanie Cutter--were pushing the day before the convention opened. Usually, when politicos mouth the same line ceaselessly they are trying to peddle a falsehood. But this time, the spin seems to be true.
As Kerryfest '04 opens, there is little conflict in Dem-land. No major tussles over who will get to speak from the podium in prime-time. No battles over the party platform. The protests on Sunday--ghettoized in Boston Common--were small and insignificant. The so-called Social Forum, a gathering of lefties, has produced no sparks noticeable to the thousands of delegates and mediafolk who rush from one reception to the next in this summer camp of politics-and-journalism. At an event honoring the late Senator Paul Wellstone, prominent progressives--Al Franken, Arianna Huffington, Jim Hightower--all said Job No. 1 is booting Bush. Once--if--that is done, there will be plenty of time for pushing and pulling with Kerry.
A few of the Wellstonian Dems did voice their frustration with their party. "Too much of the Democratic structure has run away from us," complained Anna Burger, the vice president of the Services Employees Industrial union. Representative Barbara Lee said, "We must insist that Democrats be Democrats...That's the only way we'll take out country back." Author Jim Hightower groused, "The Democratic Party is too tied to monied interests." Going much further, Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner claimed that the "military-industrial complex controls both parties, that the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council "controls" Kerry, and that "it doesn't make sense to vote." But Turner, who also declared that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by the US government because he challenged militarism, was outnumbered. The other progressives, despite any misgivings they have about the Democratic Party, saw no reason to apply pressure upon Kerry.
Not that they could. The crowd at the Wellstone event, I am sorry to report, was small--about 200. And the audience did not appear to contain many--if any--delegates or others working within the party (outside of the panelists). This was unlike the days of the 1984 and 1988 conventions, when Jesse Jackson brought progressives to the conventions as delegates and as a force making demands. These days there are few pissed-off (at the party) Democrats. Another sign of the times: on Sunday night, Representative Jim McGovern, a strong liberal, and his wife Lisa hosted a party for George McGovern, the party's 1972 nominee (who is no relation to Jim). The place was jammed with old McGoverniks and Democrats of more recent generations. McAuliffe dropped by. Bill Clinton was supposed to do so, too. (Clinton, George McGovern noted, devoted 21 pages of his new book to the 1972 McGovern campaign). So here was George McGovern, the great liberal, being feted by all parts of the Democratic Party, and the progressive Dems in attendance were not grumbling about their party. This would have been inconceivable at recent conventions: a gathering of McGovernite Democrats and no bitching about the party and the nominee.
Bush has been an uniter-not-a-divider...for Democrats and progressives. The prospect of four more years of W. has concentrated the mind of these folks. "Where are all the fights Democrats are famous for?" the Washington bureau chief of a major newspaper asked me in the lobby of the Westin (where hotel employees were doling out free clam chowder and free lemonade).
The primaries, I replied, might have ended with some disappointment among the backers of the losing candidates, but there was little anger at the end of the process. None of the other candidates every really challenged Kerry. Howard Dean was crushed as soon as the vote-counting began. There were not many intra-party wounds left over from the primaries. And there were not that many sharp ideological differences among the different camps. The candidates had disagreed over the vote to grant Bush the authority to launch the war in Iraq. But that difference did not seem to capture the imagination of most Democratic voters.
Now there appears little taste within the party for a debate over what should be done in Iraq. Some progressive Dems back the notion of expressing a date-certain for a pullout of troops, but Kerry does not. Still, this has not become a pitched fight. Perhaps that's because it's an academic question. Should Kerry win in November, he would not take office until January 20th. Who knows now what will be the appropriate policy then? In terms of big-picture principles, Kerry is for trying to internationalize the mess in order to withdraw US troops. And even Dennis Kucinich and Win Without War, the antiwar coalition, don't advocate yanking US troops without replacing them with forces from elsewhere. But the best "plan" Kerry might be able to offer at this point for dealing with the enormous problem Bush created is the argument that he will muddle through better than the guy who screwed things up in the first place.
In any event, the Democrats are shining, happy people. Kerry aides and senior Democrats are even saying they see little reason to go heavy on the Bush-bashing this week. (More on that later.) They want to use the convention--that is, the three precious hours of prime-time coverage they are receiving from the broadcast networks--to boost Kerry's positives. The convention is one big infomercial. And maybe that is as it should be. After all, who can tell what will reach those few likely voters who remain undecided?
But even if all goes well with the infomercial, one Kerry pollster told me, don't look for a big Kerry bounce. It is unlikely the convention will change the minds of the small slice of undecideds, who might well stay flummoxed until they have to cast a vote in November. What Kerry strategists hope is that the convention will strengthen and deepen the support for Kerry that already exists. A convention of unity and comity provides Kerry and other Dems plenty of space to make the case for the nominee-to-be.
Despite all the warm-and-fuzzy feel-goodism of the convention, the structural disconnects of the Democratic Party remain evident. Kerry attacked special interests during the primary campaign. Yet special interests are funding much of the convention, contributing tens of millions of dollars to subsidize events at the convention. This is a same-old/same-old story. But on Sunday night, there was a particularly trenchant example.
At a Congressional Black Caucus reception in the State House to honor the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP)--which in 1964 challenged the all-white delegation to the Democratic convention--a large photograph of Fannie Lou Hamer, a leader of the MFDP, hung next to a banner for Lockheed Martin, the aerospace firm. Lockheed Martin and Verizon were picking up the tab for this celebration. Was that because Hamer, the longtime civil rights champion, was a proponent of antimissile defense systems or a fan of telecommunications reform? No, in a business-as-usual fashion, these two corporate giants were underwriting an event in order to make nice with members of Congress. And the legislators did not mind taking the money.
Speaking to fourteen veterans of the MFDP, Representative Bennie Thompson, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus from Mississippi, said, "Thank you for scratching the conscience of America." Then he turned the podium over to Art Johnson, an executive of Lockheed Martin, who praised the CBC for the "great job they do day in and day out." Johnson added, "We're pleased with the relationship our company has with the Congressional Black Caucus." Was he pleased with the CBC's call for cutting the military budget by a third? Johnson did not say. But no doubt Lockheed Martin is pleased with its ability to lobby the CBC members on a host of legislative matters.
When Representative Elijah Cummings, the head of the CBC, passed out awards to MFDP vets, standing by his side was Peter Davidson, the chief lobbyist for Verizon. As these civil rights advocates came up to the podium one by one, it was Davidson who handed them the awards that bore a photo of Hamer.
I doubt more than a few of the hundreds of people present even thought for a moment about the incongruence of this event. The worst of the Democratic Party (corporate backers looking for--and gaining--access and influence) and the best of the Democratic Party (civil rights heroes) were literally side by side, in collaboration. Talk about coalition building. But in this week of unprecedented unity, it might be impolite for anyone to question that. It would be off message.
**********DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is NOW AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research....[I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer....Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."
BOSTON -- When Tammy Baldwin takes the stage at the Democratic National Convention Monday night, with a prime-time speaking slot on a star-studded bill that includes two former presidents, a former vice president and a former first lady, she will pause to recall just how far she has come from an empty apartment on a very different convention night.
Back in 1984, Baldwin was fresh out of college and back in her hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. She had just sublet a small, unfurnished apartment. There was a mat on the floor, a pan her aunt had given her and a tiny, black-and-white television set. Baldwin remembers sitting alone in the apartment, watching the Democratic National Convention that was held that summer in San Francisco.
"I was 22 years old, very interested in politics, but I didn't really know what my options were," Baldwin explained. "That 1984 convention was the one where the Democrats nominated Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman, to run for vice president. I was so excited. So there I was, in my little apartment, watching Geraldine Ferraro delivering her acceptance speech and thinking, 'Wow, I can do anything in politics. The barriers are being broken. The sky's the limit."
Baldwin would go on to break a few of those barriers herself. After serving in local government, she won a seat in the legislature and, in 1998, she was the first out-of-the-closet lesbian elected to a seat in Congress.
As one of the youngest women in the House, a leading light on the Judiciary Committee, a key player in the Congressional Progressive Caucus and, still, the only open lesbian, Baldwin is something of a political celebrity nationally -- and as much of an inspiration to a growing number of young progressive women as Ferraro was for her two decades ago. "I think Tammy Baldwin is one of the most interesting people in Congress, and she's certainly one of the most interesting speakers at this year's convention," says Laura Flanders, the Air America radio host who recently authored a book on women in and around the Bush administration. "I'm more excited to hear her speak than just about anyone else on the list."
But when Baldwin addresses the convention and the country Monday night, on a bill that will feature Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, among other Democratic luminaries, she won't be addressing women's empowerment, or the same-sex marriage debate in which she led a spirited floor fight against conservative House Republicans just last week.
Rather, she will focus on what has long been her signature issue: health care reform.
As one of three members of the House chosen to address key issues of the campaign, Baldwin says, "It's my job to explain the challenges that we face in our health care system -- lack of coverage for tens of millions of Americans, inadequate coverage for tens of millions more -- and to explain why John Kerry would do a better job of addressing these issues than George Bush. In some senses, that won't be hard. There are night-and-day differences between their plans: John Kerry's got a proposal that would move quickly to cover 29 million more Americans, especially children. The president's plan only covers 1.6 million more people."
Baldwin, one of the most prominent backers in Congress of a single-payer health care system that would cover all Americans, admits that the proposal put forward by Kerry, the man Democrats will nominate this week for president, does not achieve the full coverage that a single-payer system would deliver. But she says that, after meeting with Kerry and reviewing his proposal, she is enthusiastic about making the case for the Massachusetts senator.
"My perspective is different on how we get there, but I'm very satisfied that John Kerry is committed to working toward getting quality health care for all Americans," says the congresswoman, who will save her single-payer rap for House debates. "The speech to the convention is not about walking on stage and telling the nation what Tammy Baldwin wants to do. This is a nominating convention and my job is to talk about why I think it is essential to nominate John Kerry."
That does not mean that Baldwin's address will be a dry recitation of Kerry's positions. She has written a speech that will use the stories of constituents from her Midwestern district to illustrate health care concerns and issues. And, in this day of scripted conventions, Baldwin says she was pleasantly pleased by the free hand she was given in preparing her remarks.
"I wrote a speech and submitted it to the Kerry people. They said they loved it – and it's a little too long," recalled Baldwin. "There was never any pressure on content, they just said I had to keep it to under 10 minutes."
Two other Democratic members of the House, Ohio's Stephanie Tubbs-Jones and New Jersey's Robert Menendez, will address the economy and national security issues, respectively, as part of the program that includes Baldwin. Tubbs-Jones is an African-American, Menendez is a Latino, and, of course, Baldwin is one of the handful of lesbian and gay members of the House. Unlike Republican conventions, however, Baldwin says she and the other speakers are on stage to deliver substance, not symbolism.
"Democrats aren't going to typecast anyone. They're embracing us as individuals who have made our mark on fundamental issues facing the country -- not just as symbols," says Baldwin. "That's what's really exciting about this party and this convention."
Still, Baldwin says she hopes there will be young women, some of them just out of college and sitting on the floor of their first apartments, who will be inspired both by what she has to say and by her presence in prime time.
"A few years ago, I met Geraldine Ferraro," Baldwin recalls. "I told her I probably wouldn't be in Congress if I hadn't seen her speech. I know that times have changed and there are a lot more women in prominent positions. But I would be so happy if I could do for someone else what she did for me in 1984."
Though they won't come close to matching the intensity or volume of expected protests at the Republican National Convention in New York City at the end of August, there are numerous progressive demonstrations taking place all over Boston this week as the Democrats convene.
The Boston Social Forum is winding down today after a standing-room-only weekend of alternative networking, performances, discussions and debates. On Monday, the Black Tea Society will sponsor a rally against police brutality, prison abuse and the Patriot Act from 10 am to 12 noon on the Boston Common, followed by a march to the Fleet Center; Dennis Kucinich and his supporters will hold a public forum on Civil Liberties at 12 noon at St. Paul's Church on Tremont Street and the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union will host an Alternative Freedom Trail Tour through Boston from 2:00pm to 5:00pm.
On Tuesday, the American Friends Service Committee will sponsor the Eyes Wide Open Exhibit opposing US war in Iraq from 9:00am to 9:00pm in Copley Square with speakers and music starting at 7:30pm. And on Wednesday, the Campaign for America's Future and The Nation team up to present a forum on Iraq, the US and the Democrats featuring Katrina vanden Heuvel, Joe Wilson, Dennis Kucinich, Barbara Lee, Gail Smith and Tom Andrews. Watch this space and click here for more info on planned events in Boston.
Bonus Media Link: Click here to read Anne-Marie O'Connor's July 24th Los Angeles Times op-ed surveying the activist community for its views on protesting at this year's DNC.
As convention time approached, I asked one of America's most prominent historians, Eric Foner, for some political history about Boston and Massachusetts. Foner, a valued member of The Nation's editorial board and an award-winning author, is a Professor of History at Columbia University, and former President of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association. His textbook, Give me Liberty: An American History will be published later this year.
Host for the very first time to a national convention, Boston is a perfect place to reflect on this country's alternative tradition of visionary thinking. It is a city, according to Foner, which illuminates "how the rights and freedoms of all Americans have, again and again in our history, been strengthened and expanded by the struggles of dissenters, and those excluded from the full benefits of the society, to create liberty as they understood it."
Take Roger Williams--the founder of the idea of religious freedom in America, driven out of Puritan Massachusetts for daring to challenge the entrenched orthodoxy. Foner says, "Williams insisted that religious liberty rests on the separation of church and state. He rejected the idea that any one leader or one people had a monopoly on religious truth or enjoyed the special favor of God, and insisted that merging church and state corrupted both politics (by leading rulers to think they were infallible) and religion (by making it the subject of political rivalries)."
Boston was also the cradle of the abolitionist movement, several of whose leaders helped found The Nation in 1865. Their example, Foner says, shows "how a small, couragous band of men and women challenged the most deeply entrenched economic interest in America, insisting that human rights took precedence over the rights of property and that economic activity must be held to a higher standard than more profit and efficiency."
Massachusetts was also one center of the early labor movement, including the legendary female factory workers at Lowell, just outside of Boston, who, Foner observes, "insisted that a modicum of economic autonomy and economic security is essential to freedom--an idea that has found expression at numerous moments in American history including Franklin Roosevelt's Freedom from Want (one of the Four Freedoms)--an idea that has dropped out of our political discourse--and down to those who today insist that economic globalization must be accompanied by labor and environmental safeguards.
And Massachusetts has always been a major center of the women's movement, in both the 19th and 20th centuries, which not only demanded for women the same rights in the public arena as men--the vote, education, economic opportunity, etc--but expanded the idea of freedom and of individual rights into the most intimate realms of life, insisting that the right to control one's own person is the foundation of personal independence (a right that Republicans are today working hard to rescind)."
During this convention week, many actions and gatherings will be devoted to calling for an end to the occupation in Iraq. Boston is the ideal city for such debates because, as Foner reminds, "it has a long tradition of patriotic opposition to unjust wars and to the violations of civil liberties that often accompany wars. Massachusetts was a center of opposition to the Mexican War (Thoreau went to jail rather than pay taxes to support a government that invaded a neighboring country). Every war in US history, with the exception of World War II, has been the subject of strong opposition and internal debate. And the right to criticize the government in wartime, and to retain constitutional protection of civil liberties, is another major strand of patriotic dissent. I'd cite the opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the Sedition Act of 1918, both of which made it illegal to criticize the federal government, and the recent Supreme Court decisions rebuking the Bush Administration for seeking to abrogate the basic civil liberties of Americans accused of crimes as the latest in a long tradition of instence that the constitution is not suspended even in times of crisis."
And as this Administration attempts to rollback the social and democratic achievements of the 20th century, Boston--home to Senator Edward Kennedy, Congressman Jim McGovern and the late Congressman Joe Moakley, among many others--powerfully reminds us of the victories of 20th-century social liberalism, of using the government to promote greater equality and to aid the weak and disadvantaged. This is a winning legacy which Kerry would do well to evoke and emulate.
After all, as Foner points out, "It is important to note that this tradition, which originated in the Progressive era, and reached its flowering under FDR and LBJ, was originally bipartisan, but that Republican Progressivism has fallen by the wayside, to be replaced by a dog-eat-dog view of society and an alliance with the privileged rather than ordinary Americans."
Watch this space all week for DNC-related posts.
This past week, the New York State Senate took the historic and long overdue step of passing a bill to raise our state minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.15 an hour. This is a tremendous victory for the more than one million workers who will directly benefit from this increase if it is signed by Governor Pataki. At a time when low-wage jobs are failing to keep pace with price increases, it could literally mean the difference for many families. It's also a victory for the Working Families Party's hard work and the effective grassroots organizing the coalition has been doing for the last six years.
Labor unions, Democrats--even the Roman Catholic Church--joined with the Working Families Party in the fight for fairness and equity. The Daily News also earned kudos for publishing seven editorials in the last five months urging a raise in the minimum wage, and assigning reporter Heidi Evans to do a dozen related stories, including a front-page feature on what's it's like to live on $206 each week. And last week, the campaign won support from a powerful, if unexpected, quarter when the Partnership for New York City, one of the city's leading business groups, urged the State Senate to pass the bill. (The Democrat-controlled State Assembly passed a bill last March.) The business group noted that at the current minimum wage, a full-time worker earns only $10,712 a year, which is below the federal poverty level.
Moreover, a recent study by the Fiscal Policy Institute effectively counters claims that raising the minimum wage will hurt small employers. It found that in the 12 states with minimum wages higher than $5.15 an hour, employment levels did not, in fact, decrease as the minimum wage was increased.
But, as Senator Eric Schneiderman (D, Manhattan) , the Deputy Minority Leader and a longtime supporter of the WFP, points out, even with the wage hike's sound economics, it took sustained political pressure, and the threat of possible electoral defeat, to ultimately force Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno to drop his traditional opposition to the Assembly proposal.
"The Republican leadership of the Senate allowed this bill to pass this year because they are afraid they will lose seats in the election this fall in districts where the minimum wage increase is popular and where voters have been educated and organized on the issue of raising the minimum wage," Schneiderman said." It is the sad reality that bills don't pass the Senate because they make sense as public policy, or because passing them is the right thing to do. They pass when the Majority Leader sees that the voters may vote out one or more of his members if an issue isn't addressed, and therefore threaten his position as Majority Leader."
That is why it is so important to continue to support the WFP. Launched in 1998, this feisty coalition of community organizations, unions and individuals, has recruited and backed progressive candidates, run local and statewide issue campaigns and used the leverage of the ballot line to hold candidates and elected officials accountable on issues of concern to working-class, middle-class and poor people. Its unapologetic focus on economic justice, its savvy grassroots organizing and ability to give working people an effective voice in the political debate is needed now more than ever. As Jack Newfield put it in an opinion piece for the New York Sun, "Never before has a political party made such an impact on statewide public policy."
Or think of it this way: the WFP's hard work just helped put about a million dollars an hour into the pockets of the working poor. Click here to help the WFP continue its work and click here to add your name to the WFP's petition to New York Governor George Pataki asking him to sign the new minimum wage bill into law.