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Don't Cry for Canada

After the 2004 presidential election in the United States, a lot of liberal Americans looked longingly to the north. Canada, the theory went, was a social democracy with a sane foreign policy and humane values that offered a genuine alternative to the right-wing hegemony that the U.S. was about to experience.

But, this week, U.S. television networks and newspapers declared: "Canadians Tilts Right" and "Conservatives Capture Canada."

As shorthand for the election results that saw Canada's Conservative party outpoll the governing Liberal Party for the first time since Ronald Reagan served in the White House, those headlines may be useful.

But the claim that Canada has lurched far to the right is anything but accurate.

Of course, that has not stopped conservative spin doctors in Washington, and their echo chamber in the U.S. media, from announcing that last Monday's election results from Canada represent a seismic shift to the right for the North American continent. David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush, was peddling the line that Canadians had rejected "anti-Americanism" -- fostering the lie that the Liberals, who had worked closely with the U.S. government on issues ranging from the occupation of Afghanistan, in which Canada is a major player, to free trade, which the Liberals support, was somehow at war with the U.S. Equally disingenuous was Bob Morrison of the Family Research Council, a Washington-based group that opposes reproductive freedom and gay rights, who announced that: "We are glad to see that Canadians have values-voters too. We can be optimistic about the end of the social engineering as driven by the (Liberal) government."

U.S. conservatives, who can point to little in the way of positive political news from around the world these days, are entitled to their fantasies. But no thinking American should buy into them.

As is the case with most right-wing "analysis" coming out of Washington these days, the truth is a lot more complex than the right-wing spin doctors would have Americans believe.

In fact, the Canadian results ought to be read as a warning signal for U.S. Republicans.

Here's why:

* The Canadian election was held early because the Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Paul Martin had been rocked by a major corruption scandal, which involved the misuse of public funds to promote the government's position on issues involving the relationship between the province of Quebec and rest of the country. All of Canada's major opposition parties ran anti-corruption campaigns, and the first promise of the Conservatives was not a rightward shift in public policies, but rather the restoration of honest and accountable government. In the United States, where corruption scandals have shaken the Republican leadership in Congress -- forcing indicted House Minority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to surrender his position of power -- Canada's vote-the-bums-out response to government wrongdoing ought to be heartening to progressives who would like to see a similar response in November to the corrupt practices of this country's governing party. The results from Canada indicate the power of a reform message. According to a poll conducted for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., 54 percent of Canadians who voted Conservative did so because they thought it was time for a change, while only 41 percent said they favored Conservative policies.

* In order to achieve viability in a country that has repeatedly rejected social-conservative policies, Conservative leader Stephen Harper radically restructured the message and the manifesto of his party. He deemphasized issues such as abortion and gay right, and promised to protect and improve popular social-welfare programs, including Canada's national health care system. As Arthur Cockfield, a well-regarded commentator of legal and political issues who teaches law at Queen's University, noted, "Stephen Harper has moved closer to the center of the political spectrum to broaden support for his party. With plans to help working families, promote access to day care, and bolster the public health-care system... Harper no longer proposes any truly radical changes, but has signalled that he plans to tackle a number of policy priorities that could benefit lower- and middle-income Canadians." In the days following the election, Harper moved quickly to assure Canadians that his Cabinet would include leading moderates, and that his policy agenda would reflect the promises he made during the campaign to govern from the middle rather than the right.

* Harper and the Conservatives kept U.S. conservatives at arms length. Harper repeatedly emphasized his independence from the Bush administration, and his differences with the American right, during the course of the campaign. And, according to reports published in a number of Canadian newspapers, Conservative activists asked U.S. conservative leaders not to cheer their campaign on. A headline in the Calgary Sun read: "SSH! U.S. conservatives asked to keep mum." A pre-election email circulated to conservative activists in the U.S. by right-wing firebrand Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation warned that, "Canadian voters have been led to believe that American conservatives are scary and if the Conservative party can be linked with us, they perhaps can diminish a Conservative victory."

* Even with their move to the center, the Conservatives did not win anything akin to a majority of the popular vote. Infact, the Conservatives won only 36 percent support. Almost two-thirds of Canadians cast their ballots for more left-wing alternatives. In democracies with proportional representation voting systems, which better represent the sentiments of the voters, the Conservatives would not be in a position to form a government. Because Canada, like the U.S., maintrains a single-district, "first-past-the-post" voting system, the Conservatives prevailed over a divided opposition. But Canada has a multi-party political system at the federal level; the U.S. does not. If only 36 percent of American voters back conservative Republicans this fall, Democrats will dominate Congress more thoroughly than they have at any time since the Watergate era and perhaps since New Deal Days.

* The Conservatives did not win a governing majority. Of the 308 seats in the Canadian Parliament, the Conservatives will hold only 124. The remainder will be held by Liberals, with 103; the social democratic Bloc Québécois, which is the dominant party in the province of Quebec, with 51; and the social democratic New Democrats (NDP), with 29. An independent from Quebec holds the final seat. Thus, a Conservative government will have to rely on parties of the left to get anything done. A Toronto Star analysis provides the honest assessment that, "This precarious situation raises real questions about which of the Conservative policy priorities... could realistically get through the Commons... That leads to the bigger question too of how long this government could last and when another election could be unleashed on the country."

* Two parties made sighificant gains in Monday's voting: the Conservatives and the New Democrats. While the Conservatives increased the size of their parliamentary delegation by around 25 percent, the New Democrats increased the size of their delegation by more than 33 percent. In fact, for the first time in years, the New Democrats won more seats in the western province of British Columbia than the Liberals, and the NDP made significant inroads in urban centers such as Toronto. Even though they were operating in a political system that tends to drive voters toward the larger parties, the New Democrats dramatically improved their position by running as an explicitly anti-war, anti-corporate free trade and anti-corruption party. NDP leader Jack Layton explained after the election, in which his party achieved its best showing in decades, that: "While Canadians asked Stephen Harper to form a minority government, they also asked the NDP to balance that government."

The bottom line is this: Canadians have chosen to remove a scandal-plagued government that went by the name of "Liberal." But they only did so because the "Conservatives" promised not to be too conservative. And they voted in a team of left-wing watchdogs to assure that those promises are kept. If that gives U.S. conservatives some small measure of comfort, so be it. But U.S. progressives need not be traumatized by these results. Indeed, they can look forward to the day when voters in their country might choose to throw out a scandal-plagued government that goes by the name "conservative."

John Nichols began covering Canadian politics in 1984, and has regularly reported since then on national and provincial elections for U.S. newspapers and magazines. His articles comparing U.S. and Canadian politics have appeared in a number of Canadian publications.


Book Note

In their new book, Tragedy and Farce John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney, two of the country's foremost media analysts and founders of the national media reform group Free Press, dissect the troubling trends in journalism that surfaced in 2004--the decline in resources and standards for political journalism and the organized campaign by the political right to control the news cycle. They show how government decisions made without the informed consent of the American people have led to a media system that undermines democracy. Click here for info on the book, including how to order copies online.

Emperor Bush--As God, Mysterious and Omniscient

After a week in which Osama bin Laden offered truce terms and Bush decided that Iran is not such an evil axis that the UN can't peacefully curb its nuclear ambitions, I thought I'd take a stab at an unorthodox diplomatic solution to the "surveillance issue." Here's the deal: I'll show you mine if you show me yours.

I'm happy to let Dick Cheney analyze my Google records and discover that my most frequently searched terms are "Brad," "Angelina," and "baby," if the NSA will data-mine his computer for the keywords: "Joseph," "Wilson," and "wife." The White House can eavesdrop on my cell phone calls to my daughter, if it gives a detailed accounting of its dealings with Jack Abramoff. I don't even mind if George Bush learns the title of the last book I checked out of the library, if the FBI will tell me when the last time W. was in a library.

If NSA spying were really an issue of security, as the all-out media assault by the Bush administration claims it to be, it should accept the deal. But it's not. Rather this is all part of their neocon dream of an American Empire. You see, in a republic the lives of private citizens are private while the workings of public servants are public, but in an empire, Caesar's dealings remains shrouded in secrecy while he spies on citizens looking for threats to the regime. It is up to the Congress to put a stop to this idolatry: the emperor as God, mysterious and omniscient.

Feingold: Alito Would Be "Dangerous Addition" to Court

Not to be lost in the reporting on Tuesday's Senate Judiciary Committee vote to endorse the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to serve on the Supreme Court is the fact that U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, has voted for the first time in his Senate career against a Supreme Court nominee.

More than any other vote by a member of the committee -- which split 10-8 along partisan lines, with all Republicans backing Alito and all Democrats opposing his nomination -- Feingold's vote stands out.

While the seven other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee had all voted against one or more Republican nominees for the high court, Feingold had, until Tuesday, voted to confirm every Supreme Court nominee, Republican or Democrat, to come before the panel.

This break in pattern by the man who is arguably the Senate's most adventurous thinker and independent player ought to serve as a basis for rethinking strategies with regard to blocking the nomination as it now moves to the full Senate -- up to and including the prospect of a filibuster.

Simply put, if Alito is unacceptable to Feingold, then he should be unacceptable to a good many other senators -- including moderate Republicans with whom Feingold has worked closely on campaign finance reform and a host of other issues over the years, such as Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee.

Why give this special status to Feingold? Because, since his arrival in the Senate in 1993, he has distinguished himself by his consistent if often controversial approach to presidential nominations.

The senator from Wisconsin has a record of supporting disputed Republican picks for top posts -- including former Attorney General John Ashcroft and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts -- because of his belief that presidents should be afforded broad leeway when it comes to making appointments. A progressive who is perhaps best known for casting the sole Senate vote against the Patriot Act in 2001, Feingold has long argued that Democrats must support the qualified conservative nominees of Republican presidents if they expect Republicans to support the qualified liberal nominees of Democratic presidents.

Feingold's standard has often infuriated liberal interest groups, along with many of his fellow Democrats, who have argued that he has given too much slack to right-wing Republicans who will never repay the favor. Why, the common question goes, does a progressive Democrat give conservative Republicans a blank check?

But Feingold has always rejected the "blank-check" analogy. The senator has voted against a number of federal appeals court nominees in recent years, and he has consistently made it clear that would oppose a Supreme Court nominee in an instance where a president selected someone who was too extreme, too biased or too ethically challenged.

The fact that Alito is the first high court nominee to fail to meet the Feingold standard is significant. And, as the senator explained to the committee Tuesday, it was not a close call.

In an unusually blunt statement, Feingold went out of his way to distinguish the current nominee from the Republican who he backed just a few months ago to serve as the court's chief justice. "Judge Alito's record and testimony do not give me the same comfort I had with Chief Justice Roberts," said Feingold, who explained that, "Judge Alito's record and his testimony have led me to conclude that his impulse to defer to the executive branch would make him a dangerous addition to the Supreme Court at a time when cases involving executive overreaching in the name of fighting terrorism are likely to be such an important part of the Court's work."

The three-term senator from Wisconsin who is being boomed as a potential progressive candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination pointed out that, on this most vital of issues, Alito's record ought to be troubling to anyone -- no matter what their partisan label -- who respects the system of checks and balances that is outlined in the Constitution and that has served as a bullwark of American liberty over the past 218 years.

"Judge Alito has an impressive background and a very capable legal mind, but I have grave concerns about how he would rule on cases involving the application of the Bill of Rights in a time of war. Some of the most important cases that the Supreme Court will consider in the coming years will involve the government's conduct of the fight against terrorism. It is critical that we have a strong and independent Supreme Court to evaluate these issues and to safeguard the rights and freedoms of Americans in the face of enormous pressures," explained Feingold.

"Confronted with an executive branch that has jealously claimed every possible authority that it can, and then some, the Supreme Court must continue to assert its constitutional role as a critical check on executive power. Just how "critical" that check is has been made clear over the past few weeks, as Americans have learned that the President thinks his executive power permits him to violate explicit criminal statutes by spying on Americans without a court order," Feingold continued. "With the executive and the legislature at loggerheads, we may well need the Supreme Court to have the final word in this matter. In times of constitutional crisis, the Supreme Court can tell the executive it has gone too far, and require it to obey the law. Yet Judge Alito's record and testimony strongly suggest that he would do what he has done for much of his 15 years on the bench: defer to the executive branch in case after case at the expense of individual rights."

Saving Our Democracy

On a glorious Saturday in New York, a spirited crowd of close to eight hundred people gathered inside the cavernous, subterranean Great Hall at New York's Cooper Union to hear Representative John Conyers--and a dozen other eloquent speakers--address the gravest issue of our time: How do we save our imperiled democracy?

The daylong conference, "Saving Our Democracy," planned before recent revelations of illegal domestic spying and metastasizing corruption scandals, was substantive and forward-looking. Panels were devoted to laying out ideas and strategies to fulfill the democratic promise of a government by, of, and for the people.

Organized by the New Democracy Project, The Nation, Demos and People for the American Way, the conference was animated by an abiding (and bipartisan) belief that this is a moment of crisis for our republic. And throughout the course of the day, panelists grappled with the most important questions and issues of our times: How do we ensure that every vote is counted? How do we confront religious McCarthyism in the public square? What do we do to resist legislative tyranny? How do we combat the lies and secrets polluting our democracy? Is there a countervailing power to "corpocracy"? How do unions regain power? How do we nurture a media that serves the public interest, at a time of unprecedented consolidation and rightwing drift? And how do we restore democracy from the ground up?

Here is one measure of the crisis of our democratic system: the night before Representative Conyers spoke in Cooper Union's subterranean space, he had been consigned, along with eight Democratic lawmakers, to holding hearings on the gravest matter in a democracy--illegal wiretapping of its citizens--in another subterranean space: the basement on Capitol Hill. Conyers held this unofficial (and shamefully under-reported) hearing in a basement because Republicans have refused to hold hearings on the matter. (Kudos to CSPAN for carrying the hearings.)

At the New York conference, Conyers--who was greeted with a standing ovation--spoke at the iron cast podium from which Lincoln addressed the nation 146 years ago. (It was from the Great Hall, in February 1860 that the President--in a rousing peroration--argued that slavery was a moral wrong that must be ended. "Let us have faith that right makes might," Lincoln told the assembled crowd.) Conyers echoed Lincoln's words, reflecting on the darkness of our times and the necessity of saving the republic from constitutional crisis.

The nineteen-term Congressman who has courageously led the challenges against the White House on issues from Ohio election fraud to the Downing Street Memo, spoke clearly about the importance of struggle. We must stay strong, Conyers said, if we are to emerge from this interregnum of fear and stay true to the principles which make us just and secure. He challenged the Administration--as well as his own party--to uphold principles of peace, rule of law, civil liberties and economic and political justice. ("Three things, in these last decades, have been my mantra: Jobs, Justice and Peace.") And he spoke passionately of his work to hold the Administration accountable--especially through introduction of House Resolution 635, which calls for establishment of a select committee with subpoena authority to investigate possible impeachable offenses with regard to the Iraq war. (It was gratifying to hear Conyers commend The Nation for our recent decision to support only candidates who seek a speedy end to the Iraq war and occupation.)

The other keynoter, Princeton Professor Sean Wilentz, drawing on his recently published, magisterial book The Rise of American Democracy, spoke compellingly about the history of our nation's imperfect democracy. When Lincoln spoke in the Great Hall, Wilentz reminded us, those were also very dark days--in some ways, darker than our own. (He also quipped that standing in the heart of Village had made him think about what Allen Ginsberg might have done to describe our times. "He'd have written a poem called 'Howl'.")

Out of the basement of Cooper Union, emerged many powerful statements, insights, ideas and proposals. Here is a small sampling of highlights from this well-conceived, transpartisan effort to reclaim and rebuild our democracy:

Miles Rapoport, President of Demos and Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights argued for the need for national voting standards, open source codes for electronic voting machines, paper trails, non-partisan administration of elections, federal standards and, in a prescient comment--considering Monday's front page Washington Post story about the Department of Justice's Voting Rights Division--both pro-democracy leaders lamented the dangerous politicization of critical departments in Justice, particularly in the Voting Rights area.

Dr. Robert Franklin, Professor of Social Ethics at Emory and president of the Interdenominational Theological Center, appealed to conservative religious figures to "come back to your roots and to the American way, to your own best traditions...support the wisdom of the founding fathers" who respected the separation of church and state. Franklin's proposal of a "Religious Extremist Reentry Program" elicited some laughter--but he was serious in suggesting that true conservatives should cease imposing religious tests on potential office-holders.

Esther Kaplan, a frequent contributor to The Nation and author of With God on Their Side: George W. Bush and the Christian Right, spoke passionately of the need for a progressive vision of the role of religion in a secular society.

David Cole, The Nation's legal affairs correspondent and Professor at Georgetown University's Law School, spoke of how he'd recently been on a talk show with a Bush Administration offficial. The discussion centered on the legality of the NSA's domestic wiretapping program. "Anytime we get your side talking about the law," the official told Cole, "and we talk security, we win and you lose." In a cogent ten minute presentation, Cole laid out "why talking about the law is talking about security." The rule of law, he argued, is an asset, not an obstacle, in fighting terrorism.

Jerry Nadler, one of eight lawmakers who joined with Conyers to hold those "basement" hearings last Friday, was impassioned in describing the legislative tyranny at work in a GOP-dominated Congress. "Most major votes are held after midnight..there is routine subversion of procedural rules...routine to have phony committees...last minute earmarks have reached unprecedented heights and are introduced without debate, out of daylight." Nadler went on to argue that reforms must go beyond what the Democratic leadership has so far proposed. "If we don't clean up our campaign finance system--the biggest metastasized cancer on our democracy--there isn't much hope for America remaining a democracy for very long."

State Senator Liz Krueger brought laughs and moans as she described Albany's dysfunctional legislative system. Wayne Barrett's infamous naming of NYC as "City for Sale", she quipped, could easily be expanded to "State for Sale."

Tom Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive, called for a new 21st century agenda for openness, detailing how opennness protects our security, while secrecy is, and always has been, the enemy of democracy. "We need to take back the debate, reframe it." Blanton pointed to the recent revelations of body armor defects--a story that was suppressed for months and which, once revealed to the public, led to action to redress a lethal problem of bureaucratic incompetence and inertia.

Gary Bass of OMB Watch laid out why the unprecedented levels of secrecy and rollback of information must be seen as part of a fundamental change in the culture of government. His examples of how the American public is harmed by overclassification and restriction of information in the fields of health, environment and safety were especially persuasive and tragic, coming on the heels of successive mining disasters in West Virginia.

William Greider, The Nation's National Affairs Correspondent, laid out an agenda to address the fundamental deterioration of work and wages confronting not just the poor but also the middle class. How do we get back on the offense, Greider asked, at a time when "we are witnessing the groaning death throes of an economic ideology...The conservative laissez-faire dogma, brought to power by the Republican ascendancy, has hit the wall and is gradually breaking down, trapped by its own ideological fallacies and contradictions." (Watch for more on this theme in an upcoming article in The Nation.) Greider was also quick to criticize the Democratic mainstream establishment for failing to address the reality of working lives and conditions at a time of great change and stress.

Michael Fishman, President of local 32BJ Service Employees International, described how labor is globalizing, forming global alliances and partnerships with unions in other countries, as an effective way to counter the global power of multinationals. Labor is also using the power of trillions of dollars in union pension funds to change corporate behaviour. (It was the power of pension funds, Fishman argued, and the pressure they brought to bear as a result of about 40 percent of Houtson real estate being owned by funds like CALPERS that contributed to the important SEIU organizing victory in Houston at the end of last year, in which 5,000 janitors joined the union.

Fishman also told the crowd that at the end of March, multiple unions will sign a socially responsible agreement with huge multinational security corporation Securitas. Perhaps, Fishman concluded--sounding an optimistic note--"global capitalism will give us some opportunities to organize and win globally."

John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, and co-founder of the media reform group Free Press, reminded the audience that the Founding Fathers feared a consolidated media, one that would fail citizens while promoting corporate interests. How do we in the media, Nichols asked, revitalize the civic powers that are so important to a democratic society? How do we ensure that citizens are not fearful and passive but informed and engaged? How do we make sure that never again does our media--"and here I include the NYT not just FOX"--abet an administration determined to mislead us into a war of choice.

Too much of our media, Nichols observed, is, as Mark Hertsgaard warned decades ago, 'on bended knee,' with payola pundits and a vicious war on the press being waged by this administration. Nichols' dire warning of the "redlining" of the internet and the dangers of digital inequality should lead concerned citizens, of all stripes, to ensure that the upcoming legislative debates and rulemaking in Congress and the courts takes the public interest as a goal rather than just corporate profitability.

David Brock, President of Media Matters for America, was present at the creation of the modern righwing media monster in the early 1990s and now devotes his time to dismantling and dissecting the beast. He was best when ticking off examples of current media lies and distortions--take the recent coverage of the Alito Hearings, the phony "war on Christmas" and the efforts to give a false balance to the GOP-infested Abramoff scandals.

Brock documented the mainstreaming of extremist conservative views--for example, CNN's recent hiring of an extremist rightwing talk radio host, and the continual skewing of debates on television (where 80 percent of Americans continue to get their daily dose of news), and the increasing right wing pressure on the media (see Eric Alterman's Nation columns for more on 'working the refs'.) Media Matters' monitoring of the "Foxification" of our news landscape and its attempts to bring a countervailing point of view to a skewed landscape has brought some results. But, as Nichols argued, it is the systemic change--for example, restoring the Fairness Doctrine, that we must fight for in these next years. What could be less partisan than a belief that democracy is best served by a fair marketplace of ideas that truly represents this great and diverse land?

The final session, "Restoring Democracy from the Ground Up," featured Bertha Lewis, the executive director of ACORN and Dan Cantor, Executive Director of the Working Families Party. They reminded us that without work on the ground, organizing from below, we will never rebuild a thriving democracy, committed to shared prosperity, fairness, social and economic justice and true security.

Transcripts and video of the "Saving Our Democracy" conference will be available in early February from NDP. For more information check out the NDP website.

Pro-Life Field Trip

There is currently a huge overturn-Roe v. Wade march outside my office on Capitol Hill, culminating at the Supreme Court. What's shocking is not the to-be-expected thousands of demonstrators marking the 33rd anniversary of Roe, nor the predictable signs: "Protect Life," "Abortion is Homicide," "Born and Reborn," yada yada yada. What's shocking is the number of young people in attendance, the new blood of the culture war--college students, teenagers, pre-teens, even six-year-olds holding signs with pictures of aborted fetuses. As a friend who teaches Sunday school to eighth graders said, "To them, this is a field trip." (For background, see our colleague Eyal Press's brilliant dispatch in the New York Times Magazine this week, "My Father's Abortion War.")

Mel Gibson's Newest: Apocalypto

I saw a preview yesterday for Mel Gibson's soon-to-be-summer-blockbuster "Apocalypto." It tells the story of the end of the Mayan civilization with the fit-for-contemporary-times tagline: "When the end comes, not everyone is ready." I think it's pretty clear what he's talking about.

What is less clear is why the title is in Spanish, given that Mayans didn't speak Spanish. What's also not overwhelmingly obvious is why Mr. Gibson maintains that "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destoyed itself from within," because as far as I remember, the Mayan civilization wasn't destroyed from within by body piercing and teenage sex. It was destroyed by smallpox, and gunpowder. From the Spanish. Who invaded.

Now, unlike a lot of people on the left, I a) saw The Passion of the Christ, and b) didn't think it was as terrible as it was made out to be. In fact, I think that the hysteria surrounding the film contributed to its success, which in turn fed the conviction that it was a watershed cultural event that bode ill for the future of progressives everywhere--a self-fulfilling prophesy which I would have had more patience for if half the people who claimed to be experts had bothered to see the thing. Of course, I can't speak with too much authority on Apocalypto, but the preview does promise a smattering of earth mother-conservatism, an orgy of violence and a boatload of the end-of-days pornography that so much current cinema dishes up with relish. How successful it is may ultimately say less about a cultural predilection for Judgment than a seemingly endless appetite for gore and warrior calls. Only time will tell. I, for one, am more than ready for Apocalypto, though perhaps not in quite the way that Mr. Gibson intends.

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''What the President Ordered in This Case Was a Crime"

While Judge Sam Alito's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee has confirmed that he is not one of their number, a dwindling cadre of public servants still take seriously the dictates of the Constitution and the intents of it authors. And there is no more serious dictate of the document -- and no more solidly established intent -- than the one that requires the Congress to serve as a check and a balance against the excesses of the executive branch. Most particularly in a time of war, the founders intended for the Congress to question, challenge and constrain the president and his aides so that never again would Americans be subjected to the illegitimate, unwarranted and illegal dictates of a King George.

This mandate, so well-established and so thoroughly grounded in history and tradition, places a particularly high demand on the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. It is in the House, the Constitution tells us, that the work of holding an out-of-control president to account, must begin -- and it is on the Judiciary Committee that the process is initiated.

The committee's current chair, Representative James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, should understand this charge better than most. After all, he was at the center of the effort in 1998 and 1999 to impeach former President Bill Clinton.

No matter what one thought of the Clinton impeachment process, it should now be beyond debate that if the misdeeds of the former president required both examination and action by the Judiciary Committee -- as Sensenbrenner so obvioualy believed-- then the misdeeds of the current president must surely merit a similar response.

The memory of the Clinton impeachment has already inspired the most delicious sloganeering, beginning with the t-shirt that declares: "Impeachment: It's Not Just for Oral Sex Anymore." But this is about more than t-shirts and fingerpointing. As the chair of the Judiciary Committee, Sensenbrenner has a Constitutionally-mandated responsibility to take seriously the charges of executive lawbreaking and impropriety that are currently in play. If he cannot execute this responsibility in a reasoned and bipartisan manner, then he has a duty to step aside.

That is a serious choice. But, surely, the issues that are at stake demand such seriousness -- as the American people have clearly indicated. A new Zogby Poll shows that 52 percent of Americas believe that, if George Bush violated the law when he ordered security agencies to engage in warrantless wiretaps on the communications of U.S. citizens who were accused of no crimes, the president should be impeached. So widespread is this faith that almost one quarter of those who identified themselves as "very conservative" expressed support for impeachment as a response to the spying scandal.

So far, however, Sensenbrenner has allowed his partisanship to prevent him from even beginning to execute his Constitutional duties.When Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee demanded that the body conduct an inquiry into illegal spying by the Bush administration, Sensenbrenner refused them.

Because of the consequence of the issues involved, Representative John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the committee, convened an extraordinary session last week without the official sanction that only the committee chairman can convey.

"Last month all 17 House Judiciary Democrats called on Chairman Sensenbrenner to convene hearings to investigate the President's use of the National Security Agency to conduct surveillance involving U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, in apparent contravention of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. As our request has since been ignored, it is our job, as Members of Congress, to review the program and consider whether our criminal laws have been violated and our citizen's constitutional rights trampled upon," explained Conyers, who has played a critical role in investigations of wrongdoing by Democratic and Republican presidents since the days when Lyndon Johnson occupied the White House. "We simply cannot tolerate a situation where the Administration is operating as prosecutor, judge and jury and excluding Congress and the courts from providing any meaningful check or balance to the process."

Members of Congress who attended the hearing -- Conyers and a half dozen other Democrats -- heard George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley refer to the wiretapping ordered by Bush as ''an intelligence operation in search of a legal rationale."Without a doubt, Turley added, ''What the president ordered in this case was a crime," said Turley, who bluntly told the gathering that Sensenbrenner and other House Republicans have set a dangerous precedent by refusing to permit oversight hearings.

Turley's comments on the troubling nature of the president's wiretapping initiative -- and the failure of House Republicans to aggressively investigate and challenge that initiative -- were echoed by Bruce Fein, who served as a deputy Attorney General for the Reagan administration. In addition to suggesting that the implausibility of Bush's claim that he was acting within the law should be self evident, Fein warned presidential powers must always be regulated in order to halt abuses of the moment and to prevent the development over time of an imperial presidency that can no longer be checked by Congress.

The Conyers hearing had an impact on the members who bothered to attend it. Representative Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee's panel on the Constitution, responded to the testimony by announcing that the Judiciary Committee needs to explore whether President Bush should be the subject of an impeachment inquiry for high crimes and misdemeanors stemming from his authorization of illegal spying.

Sensenbrenner might well disagree with that assessment. He has every right to such a sentiment. But he does not have a right to prevent the Judiciary Committee as a whole from entertaining these most fundamental questions about the abuse of presidential power. If Sensenbrenner does not recognize this standard, then he has no place chairing the committee that is charged with taking the lead in the application of Congressional checks and balances -- up to and including impeachment -- as an antidote to executive excess.

Dems Divided Over Who Will Challenge Arnold

Four months out from the gubernatorial primary, California Democrats remain divided over who will be anointed to challenge Arnold Scwarzenegger's re-election. It's the State Treasurer versus the State Controller in the fight for the Democratic nomination.

The support of the party establishment has already been rounded up by Treasurer Phil Angelides, a wealthy San Francisco liberal. More than three dozen unions, 200 elected officials and a gaggle of party insiders have already endorsed Angelides. But his most prominent rival, state Controller and Silicon Valley businessman Steve Westly has vowed to spend as much as $20 million to take the nomination for himself.

While Angelides was among the most prominent Democrats to oppose and criticize Schwarzenegger from the outset, Westly was –until recently--more reserved in his opposition. Westly has been trying to fashion an appeal to the center. Angelides has been trying to capitalize on his more liberal Bay Area base. But as The Los Angeles Times has reported, the real political differences between the two are not substantial:

Though siding with liberals, Angelides in other ways has stuck to the political center. A death penalty supporter, he opposes a moratorium on capital punishment. He also has declined to criticize Schwarzenegger for denying clemency to death row inmates. And despite his call for massive new infrastructure spending, he advocates fiscal restraint.

Westly and Angelides also have another point in common: low name recognition. Especially in vote-rich Southern California. Early polls, nevertheless, show both Democrats to be highly competitive in a match-up with the Governator. But a knock-down drag-out spend-fest during the primary could bloody and weaken the eventual nominee. The fight is just beginning.

Talking to the Brooklyn Rail

I recently sat for an interview with Ted Hamm, the founder and editor of the Brooklyn Rail, a non-profit journal featuring "critical perspectives on arts, politics and culture." Click here to read the interview and check out the latest in Hamm's publication, which does a fine job chronicling our culture as it's lived today.