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The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

The Standard-Bearers

In a 1990 cover story for The Nation, Contributing Editor Kai Bird called Jimmy Carter "the very model of an ex-president." He described his work on human rights, education, preventive health care, and conflict resolution as a "return to the populist warpath, telling people what he perceives to be the hard truths on the larger issues."

Bird noted that his take on Carter wasn't altogether too common: "…he was never a liberal as defined by the party's traditional liberal constituency groups."

Yet more than 25 years later, Carter has become the moral standard-bearer for the progressive Democratic flank. As Patrick Doherty's recent Tompaine.com blog "Carter on A Roll," points out, this ex-President is courageously "calling a spade a spade today," breaking "the unwritten rule that former Presidents shall not contradict sitting Presidents on major issues of policy."

Just the other day, the former President called the Iraq war unjust, unnecessary and based on false pretenses. (He's been saying that for some three years now.) The next day, Carter published an op-ed ("Colonization of Palestine Precludes Peace") arguing that the main obstacle to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands.

Many progressive Democrats today stand with Carter as he speaks out on the toughest issues of our time, like torture, Iraq, the Middle East conflict and domestic surveillance. Yet it is equally clear that there is another kind of Democrat who ducks and dodges where Carter engages. And when it comes to calling out those so-called "leaders" who triangulate, capitulate, and calculate, Carter shares the mantle as standard-bearer with a fearless, tireless, truth-telling warrior of a reporter: Molly Ivins.

In her recent column, "Enough of the D.C. Dems," Ivins characteristically pulls no punches in writing of Washington Democrats' "sheer gutlessness and spinelessness" on Iraq, public campaign financing, and national healthcare.

She urges progressives to find a candidate and start organizing now in order to lock-up the nomination. "What happens now is not up to the has-beens in Washington who run this party. It is up to us. So let's get off our butts and start building a progressive movement that can block the nomination of Hillary Clinton or any other candidate who supposedly has ‘all the money sewed up.' "

When it comes to style of delivery, Jimmy and Molly couldn't be more different. But as for substance, these two kindred souls are blazing a trail for every good small d democrat to follow.

California's Cannibal Republicans

Want another way, other than Bush's rock-bottom poll numbers, to measure the depth of the Republican crisis?

Take a look at what happened late Wednesday night out here in California. Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's centerpiece proposal for re-election went down in smoking flames -- mostly because of Republican opposition.

During his January State of the State address, Arnold had proposed an FDR-scale $222 billion plan for the rebuilding of California's infrastructure. The ambitious and popular plan, the most massive in state history, which would have built new roads, levees, schools, bike and foot paths, parks and rail lines was a shrewd political move to the center by a governor whose previous set of conservative "reform" proposals were shredded last fall in a special election.

While the past few weeks had seen furious off-and-on negotiations between the Governor and the legislature's majority Democrats to put an infrastructure agreement on the June ballot, Schwarzenegger never did get his own party on board.

Actually, that's a gross understatement. To get the 2/3 majority vote he needed to succeed, the Republican Governor only had to secure the support of two GOP state senators and only six GOP assembly members. Democrats were ready to support a deal.

But the governor failed to deliver his own party. As the clock ticked toward a midnight deadline last night, the legislature hung Arnold out to dry and purposefully reached no agreement. It's possible that some future and vastly trimmed-down deal will be struck. But for the moment, the governor has been stranded with virtually nothing left to run on in his November re-election quest.

The whole episode raises serious questions about what, if any, strategic sense California Republicans have. Already a big underdog party in a very blue California, the only thing Republicans had going for them was the movie star governor.

But ideological dogma has, apparently, gotten in the way of realpolitik. California's Republican legislators have succumbed to their chronic taxaphobia and have seriously jeopardized, if not torpedoed, their own governor's chance of re-election.

Former Sacramento-based Democratic political consultant Bill Bradley is all over the developing story. Bradley says the whole affair reveals what a "rookie" Schwarzenegger still is after nearly three years in office. A rookie who now might be headed right for the showers.

Another Cover-Up?

The patient reader can find much to entertain and enlighten in theNew York Times, if one searches diligently. I came acrossthis pearl today, entitled "Editors' Note."

"The cover photograph in The Times Magazine on Sunday renderedcolors incorrectly for the jacket, shirt and tie worn by Mark Warner,the former Virginia governor who is a possible candidate for thepresidency. The jacket was charcoal, not maroon; the shirt was lightblue, not pink; the tie was dark blue with stripes, not maroon."

The editors blamed this on the film. "The change escaped noticebecause of a misunderstanding by the editors." I wanted to read more.Did editors disagree on whether pink is blue? Or did Governor Warnerlook more presidential in a maroon jacket? The Times did notelaborate.

Turning to the hard news, I began looking for a story I had assumedwould be on page one--the record current accounts deficit of $804billion reported for 2005. The total is up 20 percent and is ominousnews. It describes America's deepening financial dependency on foreigncreditors--China, Japan and others--thanks to trade deficits anddeindustrialization. People who got upset by the Dubai port deal wouldbe apoplectic if they understood the meaning.

Searching, searching, searching. I did finally find thestory on C8, the Real Estate page in the Times businesssection. It was buried under a feature, "Career Switchers Add New DepthTo Talent Pool in Real Estate." Actually, the trade numbers didn'teven get a headline, only a couple of paragraphs in story on Februaryretail sales. The Washington Post did worse--a short squib in "InternationalBriefing." The Wall Street Journal chose an upbeat approach. "Foreign investors' appetite for US assets remained strong..."

What's going on here? Why are the leading newspapers suppressing thisstory when arguably it is the most serious threat of all to America'sfuture? The bloggers who went to arms over Dubai ought to get on thecase and hammer the reporters and editors for explanations. Theguerillas will encounter the same elite opacity that surrounded theDubai issue. Why disturb ignorant readers with this complicatedsubject? It might arouse xenophobic reactions. Let's make the worldlook pink instead of dark blue.

Denny Hastert's Very Long, Very Bad Day

Watch the news out of House Speaker Dennis Hastert's office today. It may well be the site of the best the debate about the continued funding of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Anti-war activists plan to visit the Illinois Republican's office this afternoon and to begin reading aloud the names of U.S. soldiers and Iraqis killed in the war. They say they won't stop until Hastert meets with them to discuss the $67 billion "supplemental" military spending bill that is scheduled for a House vote late today.

They want Hastert to agree to oppose the White House's request for the additional money top fund wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That's not going to happen, as Hastert is a reliable rubberstamp for White House initiatives.

But the confrontation could draw additional attention to the upcoming vote -- and to the broader issue of the administration's abuse of supplemental spending bills to fund the fighting -- which has received far less coverage than it should from the Washington press corps.

The names will be read by Toledoan Mike Ferner, a Vietnam-era vet, and Chicagoan Jeff Leys, members of Voices for Creative Nonviolence (VCNV), who began a water-only fast and daily vigil at the Capitol since February 15, the third anniversary of global protests against invasion of Iraq, that is scheduled to end on the anniversary of the invasion, March 20.

From NATO to Nation

One thing I've always found perplexing is Wesley Clark's continued high-standing amongst the progressive blogosphere. For months he's consistently either won or placed second in the Daily Kos and MyDD straw polls, for example. Yesterday our ace DC intern Cora Currier bumped into Clark in the Senate and much to her surprise, wooing Nation readers was on the General's mind. I'm posting her dispatch below:


I was in Senator Carl Levin's office yesterday talking to an aide when General Wesley Clark strode into the room. He was waiting for a meeting and sat down on the couch near us. Levin's aide asked where I worked and when I replied, "The Nation," Clark jumped into the conversation. Introducing himself, he said: "Now, how are we going to get Nation readers to vote for someone like me?" I didn't know what to say. "I'm a military man," he continued, "and the military scares liberals. They say, oh, no, he's bombed people. People forget that as commander of NATO I was in charge of school children, and communities." He left soon after but gave me his card. "Nation," he said again, pointing to himself.


Let's take our own highly unscientific straw poll. If Clark runs again, would you support him?

Feingold Day Two: The Dems Fold

Last night I raised some strategic questions about Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold's move to formally censure President Bush. On the conclusion of Day Two of this drama, I have more questions.As one might expect, Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist immediately took up Feingold's challenge and was ready to call a vote. At a time when the President is losing on every issue around him, he would have easily won this up-down partisan vote.The Democrats, of course, dodged the whole matter. You know it's kind of hard to see the 800lb, polka-dotted elephant in the room when you have the limited vision of a jackass.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters he would not comment on the issue while the Democratic leadership mulls the issue. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said, "Feingold has a point that he wants to make by introducing that resolution." And then she added nothing else/

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said the resolution "raises some very important issues," but she refused to discuss what they were. Hmmm.

Senate Minority Leader Reid said he was going to do some research and see if he could find any support for Feingold's resolution.

The Wisconsin Senator, meanwhile, seemed to be fuming. Feingold told the media Tuesday afternoon:

"I'm amazed at Democrats, cowering with this president's numbers so low. The administration just has to raise the specter of the war and the Democrats run and hide. … Too many Democrats are going to do the same thing they did in 2000 and 2004. In the face of this, they'll say we'd better just focus on domestic issues. … [Democrats shouldn't] cower to the argument, that whatever you do, if you question the administration, you're helping the terrorists…"

True enough. But to come back to the point I raised yesterday, why does Feingold say he is amazed? I'm not. And I am sure you, dear reader, are unequally caught by surprise. Unless, that is, Feingold was given some sort of promise by other Democrats that they would join him but then decided to let him twist. I don't think so. The Democrats are merely in their predictable default position.

So, if you will, an in-progress balance sheet of the move to censure now follows. On the plus side: some bad publicity for Bush that reminds people he broke the FISA law; some good publicity for Russ Feingold as one of those rare Senators with principles and cojones. On the negative side: a distraction from the horrific news coming from Iraq; a distraction from the Republican's internal wars over immigration and Presidential succession; a temporary uniting of Senate Republicans in defense of Bush; a nationwide demonstration of the dysfunction of the Democratic Party (though that last point might be just as well put in the plus column).

My question: are the pro-Feingold forces strategically better off today than 48 hours ago? Is this the way Feingold wanted his move to play out? What's next? I wish I had more answers and fewer questions.

P.S. Some reports suggest that even some liberal Dems feel they were blindsided by Feingold suddenly announcing this move on a talk show last Sunday without first lining up his ducks. Other reports say some liberal Democrats are angry because this motion could short-circuit future Congressional hearings during which Republicans like Lindsay Graham and Arlen Specter would have been forced to publicly chastise Bush. I don't know the veracity of these reports. It might be CYA by some embarrassed Dems. Or it might indicate a strategic fumble by Feingold.

It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp

Political corruption, the world's second oldest profession, just isn't as easy as it used to be.

Take defense contractor Mitchell Wade, for example. He had a good thing going with Representative Randy "Duke" Cunningham, until the Congressman's taste for bling got them both busted.

Mr. Wade now claims he funneled $50,000 in illegal campaign contributions to Katherine Harris for some military largesse, but the Congresswoman failed to secure the pay-off. After what she pulled off for George W., Mr. Wade must wonder if Katherine was holding out on him.

Or take John Goodman, president and founder of a Dallas-based think tank. He thought he had bought himself another reliable intellectual to shill for George W., but what he ended up with in Bruce Bartlett, the author of Imposter: How George Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, was a pundit with a guilty conscious and a leaky mouth.

At first Mr. Goodman's money did the trick, however. Or to quote Mr. Bartlett directly, "Being supportive of Mr. Bush was definitely more rewarding to me than being critical." But what is an obscure "fellowship" at a third-rate think tank compared to a major book deal, a New York Times blog, and a guest appearance on the Daily Show?

With Iraq on the brink of Civil War and the president's poll numbers in the tank, it will be interesting to see who will join Sullivan, Buckley, Fukuyama, and now Bartlett as the next convert to the anti-Bush camp.

The War's More Popular Than Bush

George Bush's approval ratings have hit a record low according to a new poll released Monday night, but what does that really mean?

Well, consider this:

Bush's approval rating has fallen to 36 percent, according to the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll.

By comparison, 38 percent of Americans believe the war in Iraq is going well.

That's right. In the midst of a dramatic degeneration of the Iraq occupation, with the explosion of sectarian violence following February's bombing of the al-Askariya mosque in Samarra, with the U.S. casualty numbers pushing rapidly upward -- to 2,309 dead and 17,004 wounded as of Monday -- and with the military newspaper Stars and Stripes reporting a new poll that shows almost three quarters of U.S. troops serving in Iraq favor complete withdrawal from that country within a year, more Americans think the war is "going well" than think George Bush's presidency is "going well."

So why is Bush less popular than his war?

Another poll result may answer that question:

When asked if they thought the Bush administration deliberately misled the American public about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, 51 percent of those surveyed said the president had lied.

Feingold's Folly?

I admit to great ambivalence over Senator Russ Feingold's flagging effort to officially censure President Bush. The same sort of ambivalence I felt when he voted – a few years back--to confirm John Ashcroft for Attorney General because, Feingold argued, a President should have the cabinet he wants.

Feingold is a senator of singular courage and solid principle (note that he was also the only senator to vote against the same Ashcroft's Patriot Act). His call to censure is a bold and admirable moral stand. But effective politics are rarely about morality – unfortunately. Censure, like impeachment (and for that matter like Western Civilization)to paraphrase Gandhi, "would be a good idea."

Censure or impeachment is neither about the law nor really very much about the Constitution. They are, instead, strictly and wholly political acts. So we have to ask ourselves, is Feingold's move actually good politics? Any somnolent Grand Jury could probably indict just about any sitting president on some or another high crime or misdemeanor. But so what? There must be a political consensus to move ahead with such acts --- either untenable revulsion even by one's own party as was the case with Nixon (who jumped before getting pushed). Or of a solid partisan opposition majority, as was the case with Bill Clinton.

Neither of these conditions is present in the case of George W. Bush. It's little wonder that most other Democrats went scurrying away from Feingold's resolution. Who couldn't predict that? It's hard to believe that the Senator from Wisconsin, one of the sharpest guys around, didn't fully anticipate this, thereby raising questions about his own intent. Was his move to censure a personal moral statement? A pre-positioning as the "progressive" alternative in 2008? Perhaps. If there's a broader political strategy, what is it?

What we do know, and what Feingold certainly knew, is that this issue coming to vote is nigh impossible.

As I said, I'm ambivalent. Right now George W. Bush is at an all-time low in his popularity ratings. His party is fragmenting over immigration, spending, the Dubai ports deal and his general unpopularity. It's a rare golden opportunity for Democrats --one that has fallen into their laps rather than having been seized. I might be wrong, but, in agreement with Josh Marshall, I suspect that these same Democrats would be much better served by concentrating on a pro-active counter-offer to a disgruntled electorate instead of imposing upon it some sort of "prosecute Bush" litmus test.

Progressives should be particularly sensitive to this point. The conventional wisdom on the Democratic Left is that the more liberal the 2008 Democratic nominee, the more virulently anti-Bush, the more successful he or she will be. Again, I'd like that to be true but I've no way to prove it. Can anyone?

Meanwhile, as Matt Bai pointed out in this week's New York Times Magazine, the momentum inside the machinery of the Democratic Party might be tilting in an unpredictable direction. What if the eventual "Anti-Hillary" runs not to her left, but to her right? Even better reason for liberals to stay focused on what's ahead rather than simply flailing away at Bush.

Exit Katharine Harris?

Republican insiders always knew it would be a major mistake to pin their hopes for unseating Florida Senator Bill Nelson, a supposedly vulnerable Democrat, on one of the most bizarre players in American politics.

Now, they're being reminded that they should have trusted their instincts.

U.S. Representative Katharine Harris, the former Florida Secretary of State who used her position to undermine the 2000 recount process and prepare the way for the Supreme Court to hand the state's electoral votes and the presidency to George Bush, elbowed her way into the Senate contest last year. Harris was never the party's first choice but, over time, as other serious contenders dropped back, she emerged as the likely GOP nominee. By January, Presidential Brother-in-Chief Jeb Bush was proclaiming his "strong support" for Harris.

But Harris remained as strange as ever, aggressively flirting with Sean Hannity in appearances on the Fox News personality's television program, referring to her campaign as a "grassfire" and promising to work as a senator to make sure federal judges don't "make laws" from the bench -- apparently forgetting the Supreme Court's unprecedented intervention in the case of Bush v. Gore.

Now, it looks as if Harris may be preparing to exit the race she worked so hard to make her own.

After it was revealed last week that Harris had accepted more than $50,000 in illegal campaign contributions from the defense contractor who bribed former U.S. Representative Duke Cunningham, R-California, Harris quickly announced that: "We've had some negative hits but we've had an overwhelming response from grassroots and leadership around the state that are saying 'Go for it' and that's what we're doing."

Then, on Saturday, the Harris campaign released a subdued statement from the candidate that said she would "prayerfully prepare with my family, friends and advisors to finalize the strategy for a major announcement next week concerning my candidacy for the US Senate."

The betting is that Harris will withdraw -- with Republicans hoping against hope that she can still be replaced by a big-name candidate such as Governor Bush or Representative Mark Foley. But with Katharine Harris the watchword is always "weird" so no one is sure what she will do until the deed is done. And everyone is sure that the time and money Republicans wasted on her candidacy has strengthened Nelson's position -- no matter who his challenger turns out to be in November.

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