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Pelosi's Stumble

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, inspired a lot of enthusiasm among progressives when she moved into a leadership position among Congressional Democrats three years ago. She was a solid liberal who had voted against authorizing President Bush to attack Iraq in 2002 and seemed to get the point that Democrats needed to become an opposition party. As minority leader, however, she's stumbled repeatedly on the issues and generally failed to function as a leader.

Pelosi is personally progressive on many issues. But she has not done much to develop a progressive image -- or message -- for Congressional Democrats. Rather, she has embraced the same caution that has undermined the party's appeal in the past two election cycles.

Pelosi was all over the place with regard to Representative John Murtha's call the development of an Iraq exit strategy. Even now, she's sort of for the Pennsylvania Democrat's proposal, but she's not moving the caucus in a coherent direction with regard to the war in particular or foreign policy in general.

And just watch Pelosi scramble away from discussions about presidential accountability because of her misread of public sentiment regarding censure and impeachment initiatives and you can tell that she is still buying into the discredited theory that Democrats will achieve meaningful power without standing for much of anything.

Sure, Bush's poll numbers are poor, and more than a few House Republicans are being fitted for prison uniforms. But if Pelosi thinks that the GOP grip on the House is going to be released without a fight, she is headed for a November result that parallels those of 2002 and 2004.

While many national Democrats continue to see something of value in Pelosi's leadership, her hometown paper, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, has lost faith.

The Guardian, one of the most progressive of the country's alternative weekly newspapers, issued it influential endorsements for California's June 6 primaries this week.

The widely-circulated paper gave warm endorsements to a number of House Democrats seeking reelection in Bay Area districts -- including Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey and Pete Stark, all outspoken foes of the war and cosponsors of John Conyers' bill seeking to establish a select committee to make recommendations regarding impeachment. [Nine members of the California delegation are cosponsors of the Conyers resolution, but Pelosi has gone out of her way to distance herself from the proposal.]

The minority leader did not get any support, however.

Even though Pelosi does not face a primary challenge, the Bay Guardian's editors pointedly refused to endorse the minority leader.

Here's what they wrote:

Congress, District 8

Democrat

NO ENDORSEMENT

If the Democrats retake the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi will almost certainly become the first female Speaker, and that's something noteworthy. (And she'd be a far better Speaker than the incumbent.) Pelosi, however, has tried so hard to promote her own career that she's ignored her constituents and become too much of a moderate Democrat, late in opposing the war, weak on same-sex marriage, and obsessed with raising money. She's also responsible for privatizing the Presidio. Whatever happens this year, she needs a challenger next time around.

It's the War, Stupid

Yesterday I spoke to a brilliant group of kids studying AP government at Washington's Eleanor Roosevelt High School. One student asked me, "Are politicians in Congress supporting, opposing or ignoring the Iraq war?"

Good question. "Mostly ignoring," I answered.

Listening to Congress, you'd barely know there's a war on, let alone one that's already passed the three year mark. Most Republicans won't dare go after the President on his signature issue. Many Democrats aren't willing to undermine their timid leadership. Thus serious discussion of the war rarely occurs inside the corridors of power.

The American people, on the other hand, remain acutely aware of the unfolding disaster on the ground. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll further illustrates how Iraq is driving Bush's approval rating downward. The Post writes:

Public dissatisfaction with Bush has grown in lock step with opposition to the conflict in Iraq. Not quite a third -- 32 percent -- said they approve of the way Bush is handling Iraq, down five points in the past month and a new low in Post-ABC polling. Fewer than four in 10 -- 37 percent -- say Iraq has been worth the cost, the lowest level of support recorded in Post-ABC polls. Nearly two in three Americans believe the war has not been worth it -- a view shared by eight in 10 Democrats, seven in 10 independents and a third of all Republicans.

The clearest sign of how Iraq dominates the public mood came in answer to another question, which asked those who disapprove of Bush's performance to cite a reason. Nearly half, 46 percent, said Iraq -- easily the most frequently mentioned reason. In equal proportions, Republicans as well as Democrats who disapprove of Bush cite his performance in Iraq as the principal reason.

The findings buttress comments Monday by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, who said Iraq "looms over everything."

Not everyone, to be sure, has remained passive. Today marks the six-month anniversary of Rep. Jack Murtha's courageous call for a swift end to the war. The public is with him, even though the policy is not.

Spreading the McPheever

I confess. I watch American Idol. At the end of a long Tuesday or Wednesday at The Nation, I don't reach for Le Monde Diplomatique or New Left Review. I reach for my remote. And I enjoy the critical powers of American Idol Judge Simon Cowell.

(In the latest issue of The New Republic, newly anointed editor Franklin Foer has a terrific and snarkily insightful analysis of Simon's judicial "pistol-whippings"--replete with comparisons to the power of other arbiters of American critical taste such as Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and Clement Greenberg.)

Since early Spring, I've had a running bet with one of America's leading religious thinkers as to who will be America's next Idol. In late March, she bet on Elliott Yamin. But after last night's performances--and I've been trying to reach her this evening without success--I'll bet she's changed her bet. It's now a showdown between the two other finalists--Alabama's Taylor Hicks and Los Angeles' Katharine McPhee. Yes, Alabama vs. Los Angeles. (The show's red-blue dynamic was brought alive tonight with highlights of Alabama's Bob Riley celebrating Hicks and LA's (Mayor) Antonio Villaraigosa welcoming McPhee.)

Taylor is your sort of blowsy, don't worry/be happy, cut-above-the-average wedding singer. He reminds me of an apolitical, young Clinton. (I keep waiting for him to bite his lip in that semi-rueful way.) No question that Taylor did well in tonight's make-it-or-break-it round--singing Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" and Joe Cocker... and closing out with the inimitable Otis Reding's "Try a Little Tenderness." But McPhee, who's been ragged on for her lack of soul by that arbiter of soul, taste and culture, The New York Post, blew people away with her rendition of "Over the Rainbow." (Even Snarky Simon, who selected the song for her, said it was the performance of the entire program.)

So where's this leave us Idol addicts? Well, first, wishing Idol wasn't heading into its final rounds. But, putting that aside, I really want to see Simon's smirky certainties tested. After all, as TNR's Foer points out, "for the past three seasons, [Simon] has championed the contest's eventual winner..." And he's sealed quite a few fates by proving how right he was.

Monday night, Simon told Jay Leno that Taylor was "the favorite" to be the next Idol. But after last night's round, the delightfully mean-spirited Simon has to recognize he made a mistake. It's time he understand that even his conventional wisdom is almost always wrong, and that these are times which cry out for a woman Idol. After all, with a latter day Wizard of Oz running this country, we need a savvy, sharp LA woman belting out "Over the Rainbow" at every possible opportunity.

End of The Hummer?

The good news out of Detroit is that the largest version of the Hummer – the 10,000 pound, less than 10 mpg, $150,000 Hummer H1 – is being scrapped by General Motors due to lagging sales.

But, on the flip side, sales for the entire Hummer fleet – including the H2 and H3 models which boast whopping 13 mpg and 16 mpg fuel efficiencies, respectively – TRIPLED nationally between March 2005 and March 2006. According to The Wall Street Journal "people are buying Hummers precisely because of high gas prices – buyers want the world to know they can afford the gas." (If you were wondering who the 29 percent of Americans are who still support George Bush, look no further!).

And, despite recent election year grandstanding, the Bush administration is doing nothing of significance to push for improvements in the fuel efficiency of the gas-guzzling, light trucks category (SUV's, minivans, and pick-ups).

Last week, Bush – who recently "pleaded" with Congress for the "authority" to strengthen fuel efficiency standards (authority which he has had from "the day he stepped into office," according to Daniel Lashoff, Science Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate Center) – submitted legislation that would set fuel standards based on a new "marginal cost/marginal benefit analysis," instead of the current "best technology" approach.

The "cost/benefit" analysis – the method of choice employed by corporations protecting their bottom lines – invariably overstates the costs of implementing new technologies while understating the difficult to quantify benefits of things like independence from foreign oil, reduced global warming and cleaner air. Furthermore, the Bush proposal would allow manufacturers to accumulate credits for surpassing automobile mileage standards, which they could then use if they fail to meet mileage standards set for light trucks.

According to Lashoff, "The Administration's proposal is a Trojan Horse that they are trying to sell to consumers but really is a gift to GM."

Any more tricks like these and Bush might soon see gas prices exceed his approval rating. In the meantime, an angry electorate should let its representatives know that this Bush proposal isn't worth the paper it's printed on – literally, when one considers the energy cost to manufacture and recycle the paper.

Big Brother's Little Brother

Six months ago, The Nation published The Dictionary of Republicanisms, a guide to the Orwellian phrases the Republicans have introduced into American politics. And it seems like every week since then they keep adding new ones. This week's winner is The Terrorist Surveillance Act. Last week's was trolling.

Yes, last Thursday the country experienced an uncomfortable moment when the President of the United States reassured us that the government was not "trolling through the personal lives of millions of innocent Americans." Apparently W's speech writing staff doesn't know that trolling is slang for an older gay man cruising for anonymous sex with younger men.

The White House defense for the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Act, its defense for coercing the phone companies into giving up millions of Americans phone records is that they are trolling the "logs," not listening to the content. If you believe that I suggest you pepper your telephone conversations with the Arabic phrase for "Allah is great" and see how you're treated at airport security.

The Senate has the opportunity to rebuke the president for this warrantless wiretapping by rejecting the man who oversaw the program, General Michael Hayden. If they do not, they will see how much luck they have trolling for votes next November.

To read excerpts from The Dictionary of Republicanisms click here, here, and here.

Cheney's Oily Interests

Wondering why Vice-President Dick Cheney recently played footsie with Kazakhstan's autocratic leader--an oil-rich president with an awful human rights record whose recent re-election was fraudulent? (Hey, sounds sort of familiar.) No, it wasn't because Cheney wanted to mimic his boss, who recently received another oil-rich autocrat--the president of Azerbaijan--in the White House. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Cheney used to occupy a cushy seat on Kazakh's Oil Advisory Board? (Did anyone see this in coverage of the Vice-President's trip?) As reported by Mark Ames in the June 2003 issue of The Exile, Cheney was a member of that board in 2001 and advised Bush to "deepen [our] commercial dialogue with Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and other Caspian states." On this trip, he pronounced himself to be "delighted" to be a guest of the Kazakh president, adding that the United States "is proud to be your strategic partner" and looks forward "to continued friendship between us."

Speak for yourself and your oily interests, Mr Cheney, not for the millions of Americans who still seek a moral compass in our politics.

FBI Said to Seek Phone Records of Reporters

On an evening when every politician in the Washington was trooping in front of the television cameras to add their commentary to the slurry of blather that is the immigration "debate," and most Washington reporters were trying to figure out whether White House political czar Karl Rove will be indicted this week, little attention went to what could turn out to be the most significant story of the day.

But as journalists wake up to the fact that they have apparently become the latest targets of the Bush-Cheney administration's abusive eavesdropping, that should change.

According to ABC News, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been quietly going after the phone records of news reporters as part of its investigations of leaks of information of government employees.

An entry posted Monday evening on The Blotter, an ABC News blog, by investigative reporters Brian Ross and Richard Esposito, reports that, "The FBI acknowledged late Monday that it is increasingly seeking reporters' phone records in leak investigations. 'It used to be very hard and complicated to do this, but it no longer is in the Bush administration,' said a senior federal official."

The report by Ross and Esposito, respected journalists with solid sources in the law enforcement community, continued:

FBI officials did not deny that phone records of ABC News, the New York Times and the Washington Post had been sought as part of a investigation of leaks at the CIA.

In a statement, the FBI press office said its leak investigations begin with the examination of government phone records.

"The FBI will take logical investigative steps to determine if a criminal act was committed by a government employee by the unauthorized release of classified information," the statement said.

Officials say that means that phone records of reporters will be sought if government records are not sufficient.

Officials say the FBI makes extensive use of a new provision of the Patriot Act which allows agents to seek information with what are called National Security Letters (NSL).

The NSLs are a version of an administrative subpoena and are not signed by a judge. Under the law, a phone company receiving a NSL for phone records must provide them and may not divulge to the customer that the records have been given to the government.

Monday evening's report from Ross and Esposito followed their revelation earlier in the day that they had been told by "a senior federal law enforcement official" that the government is monitoring phone calls they and other journalists are making in order to identify confidential sources.

Ross and Esposito wrote in their mid-day Monday entry on the ABC News blog that:

A senior federal law enforcement official tells ABC News the government is tracking the phone numbers we (Brian Ross and Richard Esposito) call in an effort to root out confidential sources.

"It's time for you to get some new cell phones, quick," the source told us in an in-person conversation.

ABC News does not know how the government determined who we are calling, or whether our phone records were provided to the government as part of the recently-disclosed NSA collection of domestic phone calls.

Other sources have told us that phone calls and contacts by reporters for ABC News, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post, are being examined as part of a widespread CIA leak investigation.

If these reports are accurate -- and Ross and Esposito have a solid record of getting things right -- it does not require much of an imagination to determine what has transpired.

Any serious discussion will turn, for reasons hardly unreasonable considering recent revelations regarding this White House's disregard for the rule of law, to the question of whether a frustrated Bush-Cheney administration is seeking the phone records of journalists not merely to identify leakers but to thwart the sort of whistle blowing that has embarrassed the president and vice president by linking them to warrantless wiretapping, rendition of prisoners, the defense of torture, the distribution of classified information in order to punish political critics and other abuses of power.

If the administration has begun reviewing the telephone calls of reporters not to catch lawbreakers but to prevent revelations of its own lawlessness, then this White House has strayed onto dangerous political turf.

To be sure, the Bush-Cheney administration would not be the first to go after journalists in order to protect itself from challenges to its authority. President John Adams actually jailed editorial critics in the early days of the Republic, provoking the crisis that would make him the first president to be defeated for reelection. President Richard Nixon produced an "enemies list" that included the names of prominent journalists such as Daniel Schorr.

This could mark a turning point for the usually pliant Washington press corps, however.

White House reporters are by any measure a docile lot, and there is no question that the Bush-Cheney administration has benefited tremendously from the frequently stenographic reporting of even its most outlandish spin by unquestioning national correspondents -- two words: "Judith Miller." But it is difficult to imagine, especially with the approval ratings for the president and vice president dipping to depths previously explored only by Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew in their darkest days of their diminishing power, that Washington reporters will take kindly to being spied on by an administration bent to shutting up confidential sources.

It is, of course, true that members of the White House press corps should not need a threat to their own privacy -- not to mention their most vital sources of honest information -- to be inspired to practice their craft as the founders intended. But the track record of the past several years indicates that a jolt of some kind was needed. Let's just hope that the reporters who cover Bush and Cheney will prove to be self-serving enough to now begin taking on an administration that appears to be bent on silencing the whistleblowers who are so necessary to the telling of the full story of what this White House is doing in our name but without our informed consent.

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John Nichols is the co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Tragedy & Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections and Destroy Democracy (The New Press).

Heckuva Job, Dubya

Let's get a couple of things straight about the immigration speech President George W. Bush unreeled Monday night from the Oval Office.His address had nothing to do with actual border policy and everything to do with domestic electoral politics.

The real mission of the 6,000 National Guard troops he has called out is to quell the rebellion on the President's right flank, the flaring mutiny of his own conservative base. Indeed, if the President were being honest, the newly mobilized troops would be taken off the Federal payroll and moved onto the books of the 2006 national Republican campaign.

They certainly aren't going to be stopping illegal immigration. Most of the Guard will be unarmed. They will be barred from patrolling the border itself, as well as from confronting, apprehending or even guarding the undocumented. The troops will be given solely behind-the-scenes, low-profile, mostly invisible tasks of pushing paper, driving vans, and manning computers. Bush could have saved the taxpayers a load and sent a few battalions of Boy Scouts to do this job. (Click here to read the entire after-the-speech reaction on MarcCooper.com).

Here's what I wrote earlier today in the run-up to the speech:

While simultaneously trying to appease his own right and pushing a comprehensive reform program right over their heads, in his speech to the nation on immigration tonight Bush can be expected to tear immigration baby right into two.

While the details of Bush's speech cannot all be anticipated, what we know in advance is that he's going to satisfy nobody.

It now seems certain he's going to talk tough and announce he's sending "troops to the border"--National Guard troops. This part of the speech aims at staunching the political erosion on his right, the ongoing slippage of his own conservative base increasingly convinced that Old George has capitulated to blue-helmeted globalists and is conspiring with Vicente Fox to give the southwest back to Mexico.

But Bush will really be engaging in some sleight-of-hand. Anyone who thinks that as a result of the President's order there are soon going to be US troops with weapons in their hands standing steely guard on la linea is going to be very, very disappointed. The new infusion of Guardsmen, if it happens at all, will mostly mean the "troops" taking over some desk jobs and some technical chores, thereby freeing up more Border Patrol agents to run up and down the ravines of Arizona chasing our future cooks and bottle-washers. Some of the guard but might have an expanded role in surveillance as well; but make no mistake, there will be no phalanx of troops on the border. There's also the question of what sort of deployment takes place if the governors of New Mexico and California--as they have indicated--might oppose the measure.

So when it comes to the restrictionist right-wing and the hard-liners in the House that the President is now trying to appease, all Bush is going to do is tease them and eventually further tick them off.

The second part of his speech, we think, will be some sort of an endorsement of comprehensive immigration reform (a guest worker program and perhaps some sort of path to legalization for the undocumented already here). This is aimed at appeasing more liberalish reformers and at supporting--at least vaguely--the bill now expected to emerge from the Senate. Well, Bush might say enough to give cover to the more recalcitrant GOPers in the upper house who are only reluctantly going along with a reform bill, but you can also be sure that he's going to further cloud up the sensitive issue of legalization and of expanded legal immigration. At best it's going to be a back-handed endorsement from the president.

You can also expect that a large part of the reform coalition--the liberals, the Democrats, and the unions--are going to take the Prez at his word and be mighty worked up over the thought of unleashing the military on the border (even if that is not exactly what's going to happen). I can't imagine any lovefest from the left around Bush because of the coming speech.

When the dust clears, we might be closer to a Senate bill but I hardly see any resolution of the immigration or border issue coming out of this.

Lucky for the President, in many ways, that immigration has been such a back-burner issue until just a handful of weeks ago--a complex matter to which most people have paid scant attention (at least to the details). Bush's leadership on this has really been grossly incompetent and irresponsible.

The irony is that it is he, the President, who pushed this matter to national attention to begin with. Coming into office in 2001, he implied that making a deal with Mexico was his top foreign policy priority. After 9/11 blew that away, Bush came back to the issue a second time, citing a guest worker program as one of his priorities in his 2004 state of the union address.

And then, after once igniting the debate--one that turned quite conflictive this Spring--Bush ducked and covered, basically going MIA. Now that the debate is simmering, with mass mobilizations of immigrants, a Senate racing to catch up, a House mired in bumper-sticker solutions, Minutemen stealing headlines, and his own Republican Party split right up the middle on the matter, the President--very belatedly--plans to make this a dramatic, prime-time issue. The sure bet is that 24 hours from now, after his speech, the issue will be only more confused. I hope I'm wrong. But I don't think so.

Asking Rove One Question

I knew what not to ask Karl Rove: Are you about to be indicted in the CIA leak case?

His answer would be predictable: My lawyer has asked me not to discuss the investigation while it is still ongoing.

But he had just finished a speech on economic policy at the American Enterprise Institute--the hotbed of prowar neoconservatism--and during the Q&A period none of the reporters were addressing the big elephant in the room: the recent chatter in Washington--fueled in part by Rove's recent return to the grand jury room (for his fifth appearance)--that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald was getting closer to indicting George W. Bush's master strategist.

I've been trying not to be drawn into the rumor vortex. (A friend emailed to say that a lawyer involved in the leak case speculated that Rove would be indicted this coming Friday.) But a pending indictment--or non-indictment--has been the talk of the town. Still, there was Rove mouthing White House talking points on how swell the economy is, and a roomful of reporters (and lobbyists and policy wonks) were not addressing what was on the mind of many. After all, who yearns to hear Rove explain why the Bush administration is the model of fiscal responsibility?

So I raised my hand.

To his credit, Christopher DeMuth, the president of AEI, called on me. (Introducing Rove, DeMuth had hailed his "strength of character," his "disciplined serenity," and his refusal to complain about the "flagrant unfairness" of the attacks levied upon him.) But as DeMuth was surveying the crowd at the AEI's conference room, Rove jokingly asked him not to call on John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal and then, as DeMuth pointed at yours truly, Rove said, "Don't call on him either."

The microphone was handed to me. "Too late," I said to Rove, and I put a simple query to the man:

On a different subject, Scott McClellan told the White House press corps--many are here today--that he had spoken to you and you were not involved in the CIA leak. Can you explain why the American public...two and a half years later hasn't been given an explanation? Don't you think it deserves one, for it does seem that you were to some degree--though it may be disputed--involved in that leak?

Rove replied:

My attorney, Mr. [Robert] Luskin, made a statement on April 26. I refer you to that statement. I have nothing new to add to it.

Then, with a half-smile on his face, he added,

Nice try, though.

That was it. (You can watch the exchange here.) I hardly expected him to provide a responsive answer. But didn't somebody have to take a swing?

Of course, the statement Luskin released had nothing to do with this question. Luskin had declared that Rove "is not a target of the investigation. Mr. Fitzgerald has affirmed that he has made no decision concerning charges."

I wasn't asking if Rove was a target or on the edge of being indicted. I was wondering if he had told the truth to McClellan and why the Bush White House has been unwilling to explain why it falsely denied Rove and Scooter Libby's participation in the leak. Lying to the public is generally not a crime. And Fitzgerald's probe--which is geared solely toward investigating possible crimes and determining if a criminal case can be made--is not designed to examine non-criminal falsehoods. It is not Fitzgerald's task to lay out for the American public the truth about the leak and to reveal what happened within the White House. That is--or ought to be--Bush's responsibility. But neither he nor Rove--nor anyone else connected to the administration--seems interested in meeting that obligation.

After Rove's non-response to my question, no other reporter asked about the leak case. They focused on economics, immigration, and the president's low numbers. (Rove noted that the main problem is that the public likes Bush the man but it just doesn't fancy his war in Iraq. How inconvenient.) But after the event was done, there was much dissecting of Rove's state of mind. Did he seem nervous? Anxious? Was this speech--a policy speech--a sign that he was still handling policy in the White House even though the policy brief was officially ripped from him in the recent White House staff shuffle? (The speech introduced no new policy notions; it was almost entirely a defense of Bush's tax cuts, his trade policies, and his stewardship of the federal budget.) That is, no one cared that much what Rove really had to say--other than, perhaps, what he said during the Q&A about politics. (The GOPers will do fine in November, polls are just polls, the Dems have nothing to run on, etc.) They were mostly there to watch and read between the rhetoric.

Rove was on display--which was the point, given Fitzgerald's never-ending probe and the changes at the White House. Perhaps it was indeed merely a "nice try" to address the real issue at hand. But if any indictment does come--and I'm not saying that it will--Rove's you-can't-touch-me dodge-with-a-grin will sure make good footage for the news shows.