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The Notion

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

Is Gore Still Looking for Votes in Florida?

Al Gore returned to Florida this weekend. And you know what that means. (Insert joke about butterfly ballots, hanging chads, Katherine Harris and Jews for Buchanan.)

He still uses the line about being a "recovering politician." It still draws laughter. But those of us who've followed Gore know he's emerged from the political wilderness as one of the most eloquent critics of the Bush Administration, a favorite among the Democratic base and even a dark horse for the '08 nomination. By all accounts, his foray into Florida, campaigning for state candidates, only boosted his political fortunes. From the Orlando Sun-Sentinel:


"Welcome back, Mr. President!" someone yelled from the crowd as Gore took the stage.






"This was the scene of a crime," said West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel, whose son, Marine Capt. Benjamin Lubin, has served in Afghanistan.






"We're very proud of him," Frankel said of her son. "But I can tell you, if Al Gore had been president, my son would not have been at war."






"I want to give you a couple of reasons to redouble your efforts," Gore said.



"Voter fraud!" an audience member quickly offered up, to the delight of the crowd.



Gore smiled.



"I'll let others talk about that, but I like some of what I heard out here," he said.


Call it the looser, freer, funnier Al. Gore 2.0. Maybe if he returned to politics Gore would instantly tighten up and start babbling about lockboxes. But--risking the scorn of many--I think he could pull a Nixon or Reagan and win back the presidency.

IF he's willing to take on his former boss's wife.

A Subversive Southerner Passes

On Monday, March 6, when Anne Braden died, the South lost one of its most dedicated, courageous and feisty fighters for racial justice, civil liberties and economic rights.

I met Anne Braden in the early 1980s when I worked for ABC's "Closeup" unit, one of the last serious documentary divisions at a news network. Our crew spent a week in Louisville, Kentucky, interviewing Anne--and those who had supported, shunned and persecuted her in the 1950s--for The American Inquisition, an hour-long documentary about the impact of the McCarthy era on our nation's politics and society. (It aired in 1983.)

I remember trying to get Anne Braden to tell us about how she came to her radical politics. Some of it was her father, she said. He had been, in Anne's telling--a "committed racist" in a segregationist family. But much of it, as her unusually revealing memoirs The Wall Between explained, came from her work as a newspaper reporter, covering the Birmingham courthouse. That, she told us, "made a radical out of me." As her biographer, Catherine Fosl remembers, Anne explained that seeing "two different systems of justice," where violence against blacks was ignored and violence by blacks was harshly punished, moved her to live a life of radicalism and agitation.

Anne and Carl Braden gained national attention in 1954 when they bought a house for an African-American couple in an all-white neighborhood in Shively, a suburb of Lousiville. As the Lousiville Courier-Journal obituary reports, "In the resulting backlash, assailants shot out the windows, burned a cross in the yard and bombed the house, though no one was hurt. Anne and Carl Braden were charged with sedition and accused of planning the explosion to stir up trouble and to promote Communism--charges the Bradens denied. Carl Braden's eventual conviction was later overturned."

But for many years, as Fosl's invaluable biography Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and The Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South, reminds us, these charges left the Bradens pariahs, "branded as radicals and 'reds' in the Cold War South."

But the Bradens never slowed down. In fact, sedition charges were brought against them again in 1967, this time in Pike County, Kentucky, where they were accused of being communists trying to overthrow the county government. (They had been helping a couple protest strip mining.) "Before the Bradens could be tried," the Journal reported, "a federal appeals court declared Kentucky's sedition law unconstitutional."

For her courageous work, and early stands against segregation, Anne Braden was one of only five white southerners commended by Martin Luther King, Jr., in his historic 1963 "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

In the late 1950s, into the 1970s, Anne Braden traveled throughout the South, chronicling racial injustices and the struggles they provoked for the Southern Patriot monthly newspaper, which she edited from 1957-73. She and her husband Carl, who died in 1975, were also generous mentors to a generation of Southern activists.

When she was named, not long ago, to the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame, Anne Braden said: "The battle goes on as far as I'm concerned. You can't give up."

She lived what she preached. "As feisty and dedicated as ever," Fosl writes, "Braden joined other Lousiville activists last fall on buses bound for the anti-war demonstration in Washington, DC even though she was in a wheelchair."

Anne Braden's 1958 book, The Wall Between, was recently reisssued with a 40-page epilogue by the University of Tennessee.

For those who wish to continue Anne Braden's work, donations can be made to the Carl Braden Memorial Center, 3208 West Broadway, Louisville,Kentucky, 40211. Or, make gifts and contributions to the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.

And for a new generation of subversive Southerners--and Americans--I recommend that you buy a few copies of Catherine Fosl's biography of Anne Braden.(Share with your relatives, colleagues and anyone in need of some inspiration these days.)

Vermont Paper Embraces Impeachment Push

When five Vermont towns voted for resolutions urging Congress to impeach President Bush, there were many in the media who dismissed the move as purely symbolic. But the local daily newspaper in southeastern Vermont, the 130-year-old Brattleboro Reformer, takes a different view.

"In a place where elections can't be stolen and the spinmeisters have no effect, people in five Vermont towns stood up and said, "Enough!" the Reformer editorialized, adding that, "This nation can't take another three years of failed policies, reckless wars and a pervasive culture of corruption and cronyism. Vermont has led the way in the past. We can do it again. We hope Tuesday marks the beginning of a nationwide debate over the continued legitimacy of the Bush presidency."

Here's the entire editorial:

In Vermont, we take great pride in our tradition of direct democracy and how we can have a say not just in how things are run in our towns, but also on bigger issues like war and peace. Last year, more than 40 towns across Vermont approved a nonbinding referendum regarding the deployment of the Vermont National Guard in Iraq.

In doing so, Vermont became the first state to debate the deployment of the National Guard.

This year, five Vermont towns went beyond the Iraq war to take on the architect of it -- George W. Bush.

In Newfane, Marlboro, Putney and Dummerston, as well as the central Vermont town of Brookfield, town meeting voters approved a measure to demand that our Congressman, independent Bernard Sanders, file articles of impeachement to remove Bush from office.

That isn't surprising, considering the state's tradition of using Town Meeting Day to consider issues beyond road repair and school funding.

In 1974, several Vermont towns had town meeting votes calling for the impeachment of Richard Nixon. In the early 1980s, Vermont gave the nuclear freeze movement a kick-start with town meeting votes that eventually inspired other states to debate the need for more nuclear weapons. The vote on impeachment Tuesday follows this pattern of voting locally to act globally.

As Dan DeWalt, the Newfane Selectboard member who started this whole process by getting an impeachment article on Newfane's town meeting warrant, told reporters Tuesday, "In the U.S. presently, there are only a few places where citizens can act in this fashion and have a say in our nation."

In a place where elections can't be stolen and the spinmeisters have no effect, people in five Vermont towns stood up and said, "Enough!"

Sadly, Sanders won't be introducing articles of impeachment. He said Tuesday that Republican control of Congress makes it "impractical to talk about impeachment."

We disagree. More than two dozen House members have co-sponsored a resolution calling for the formation of a select committee that would make recommendations regarding impeachment. Sanders ought to join that group and forcefully push for impeachment proceedings to begin.

This nation can't take another three years of failed policies, reckless wars and a pervasive culture of corruption and cronyism. Vermont has led the way in the past. We can do it again. We hope Tuesday marks the beginning of a nationwide debate over the continued legitimacy of the Bush presidency.

Could This Unleash an Unintended Nuclear War?

Ann Tyson reports in the Washington Post yesterday that the Pentagon wants $500 million to convert 24 Trident missiles currently armed with nuclear warheads into rockets carrying conventional warheads.

But there is a serious problem with this plan. Defense officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, "acknowledge a major risk is that other nations could conceivably misinterpret a conventional missile attack as a nuclear strike."

Nuclear experts concur that "the possibility for confusion would be high because U.S. submarines capable of launching the missiles could be armed with conventional and nuclear varieties."

Further, a threatened nation would have to make such a determination under the most dire circumstances, with an average flight time of 12-24 minutes to hit targets 5,000-6,000 miles away.

Victoria Samson, Research Analyst at the Center for Defense Information commented, "Shifting these ICBM's into conventional weapons involves too much trust. How will unfriendly nations know these are conventional? Will they trust us enough to believe us? Would we trust them? With nuclear weapons, we can't afford any misconceptions."

And all of this is twenty years after Gorbachev and Reagan nearly worked out a deal at the Reykjavik Summit to abolish nuclear weapons. This is much more than a step backwards… it is a step towards unleashing an unintended nuclear war.

Testing has already begun, and one of the two warheads has been developed. We would be wise to contact our representatives immediately and let them know we want no part of this madness.

What Culture of Corruption?

Jack Abramoff is singing to Vanity Fair and planning to "name names" when his trial begins in Florida later this month. Duke Cunningham will soon serve eight years in the slammer, the longest sentence ever given to a congressman for crimes in office. Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, Conrad Burns and others may share a similar fate.

But things are eerily business as usual on Capitol Hill, as the Senate takes up lobbying reform this week and the House plans a vote before Easter. Already the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee last week voted against one of the few good proposals--introduced by Senator Barack Obama--to create an independent ethics enforcement agency that would compliment and bolster the pathetically inactive ethics committee. The proposal went down 11-5, a telling precursor of things to come. Wrote Public Citizen's Craig Holman:


The committee hearing was extremely disheartening. Most members argued there simply is no Congressional ethics problem; that the public's perception of corruption on Capitol Hill is a myth. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) had to the gall to mock the public's concerns by offering several ridiculous amendments, including one that would prohibit government buildings from being named after living senators. Coburn said he was planning to introduce the amendments in "jest," as a way of snickering at our calls for reform.


Ha, ha, Coburn's quite the comedian. But he's not laughing alone. When the Senate Democrats offered their surprisingly strong "Honest Leadership Act" on the floor this week it too saw defeat, on a 55-44 party line vote. Instead the Senate unanimously passed a law forbidding lobbyists from buying lawmakers meals and drinks. The poor impoverished Senators, as Trent Lott sulked, will be forced to eat with their wives.

Other coming amendments, CQ reported, "are likely to be accepted without a roll call vote, thus avoiding a potentially harmful public record of positions taken on 'good government' legislation."

Silly me. I could've sworn I heard Senators boasting weeks ago that sunlight was supposed to be the best disinfectant.

Dems Punking On Border Debate

Let's extend the discussion we're having here on immigration reform another round or so. Below this post you can read of my colleague Sam Graham-Felsen's hopes for the much-needed DREAM act to come to fruition.

Frankly,just as the Senate starts marking up its immigration reform bill before a March 27 deadline, the lights on the whole border enhcilada are alarmingly dimming out. Dreams are more likely to end as nightmares. Yes, the Republican restrictionists on Capitol Hill are doing a fine job of sandtrapping more moderate reformers.

But let's stop for a moment and ponder what a piss-poor job the Democrats are also doing.

First there's the case of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano picking Wednesday as the day to annouce she is ordering more National Guardsmen posted on the border. NO accident this comes on the very same day that the Senate debate begins. Even less doubt that this is the most numb-skulled sort of political demagogy. Napolitano knows very well that sending down a couple of hundred Guard members to simply ride along with Border Patrol agents and back them up on techincal and administrative affairs is gonna have a 0.0% effect on plugging up illegal immigration leaks. But the dispatch of the troops sure reads great in those headlines -- ain't that right Governor? On a day when when we need maximum clarity, we get cheap grandstanding and pandering to the other side.

More flummoxing are the political declarations today of Hillary Clinton. After a long studied silence on the immigration issue, Ms. Clinton finally spoke out today saying that some of the Republican border reform plans currently out there would set up a "police state." (My, my America is an accelerated decline -- moving from plantations to police states in barely a months time!)

The truly offensive part of Ms.Clinton's remarks derive not so much from her well-known cowardice on this issue, but more so from the ghastly border policies enacted by Mister Clinton last decade. In the mid-90's, President Clinton imposed draconian lockdowns on traditional urban crossing points from San Diego across to El Paso. The macabre result was to re-route the flow of the udocumented out into the most hostile and unpopulated deserts. The death toll of those trying to cross rose from 30-50 year in the first two years of Clinton to 300 and 400 where it remains today. Worse, in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Clinton passed a set of immigration regs that immediately led to the summary deportations of tens of thousands of immigrants, some of them legal residents. So you know what? I really don't want to hear a word out of Hillary on this issue except, mayb,e "I'm sorry."

Finally, the wire reports inform us that on this, the first crucial day of Senate Judiciary Committee mark-up on the proposed reform, the Dems were basically AWOL. The San Jose Mercury News reports that:

No more than eight of the 18 members on the Senate panel were ever in the meeting room at one time Wednesday. Under the committee rules, it takes eight members to vote on amendments and 10 to actually vote on the total bill. And at least two members from each party have to be there.

For much of the time, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was the lone Democrat although Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., came and went as did a few others.

Specter, R-Pa., repeatedly asked the staff of the absent senators to summon them and said if this continues he will start asking those not showing up if they "really" want to be a member of the usually coveted panel.

A DREAM act? More like Deam On! The growing consensus of expert immigration watchers is that this whole process -- years in the making-- seems headed for a crash and burn over the next few weeks. There just aren't enough Republicans who will fend off the wackos from their right fringe. And the President, who once had honroable positions on this issue, has retreated back into his bubble. And there aren't enough Democrats out there ready to make common cause with the likes of McCain or even Bush to get something done that might be actually good for the country.

Here's the early line from the consulting oddsmakers I keep retained on my mammoth staff: They'll offer you today about 6 to 1 that there will be no comprehensive reform and that within a few months we will be back to where we were a year ago -- nowhere.Said one smarty pants immigration lawyer I know: The Republicans are on the verge of doing to immigration what Hillary Clinton did last decade to Health Care -- Set it back several decades!

Pork & Molasses

"If we say we need it, the American people can afford it," a high-ranking Pentagon official once told Vice Admiral John Shanahan years ago.

By "it" he meant weapon system after weapon system. Today America can't afford it. But still the Pentagon wants it all and what Shanahan terms the "Military-Industrial Congressional Complex" happily says yes, under the guise of appearing "strong on defense."

Congress is close to passing another $50 billion for the war in Iraq, on top of the $251 billion previously allocated. This funding isn't even part of the Pentagon's $439.3 budget for next year, the highest level since World War II.

Fifteen percent of that budget will go toward obsolete, ineffective or unusable Cold War-era weapons that costs Americans billions of dollars and provides no security in return. Today former Reagan Administration Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb, in conjunction with the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, unveiled a blueprint to curb this madness.

The "Common Sense Budget Act" would eliminate $60 billion in waste and fraud from the Pentagon's budget and redirect the money toward homeland security, deficit reduction, energy independence, children's health, school modernization, job training, medical research and humanitarian assistance. Polls show that two-thirds of the public want these changes to occur.

The Act, introduced by Rep. Lynn Woolsey with fifteen cosponsors, has virtually no chance of passing this Congress. But hopefully it'll be the beginning of a badly-needed debate. Business leaders plan to kickstart the discussion by running ads in two disproportionally important states: Iowa and New Hampshire.

Messing With DeLay

Well, maybe you can mess with Texas. Scandal-plagued former House Minority Leader Tom DeLay, whose career in Congress imploded after he was indicted for scheming to warp homestate political maps and campaigns, won a clear victory in his Republican primary Tuesday night.

DeLay took 62 percent of the vote to 30 percent for his most credible challenger, Tom Campbell, a lawyer who served as general counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during the George H.W. Bush administration. Lawyer Mike Fjetland, a frequent candidate, took 5 percent, while Pat Baig, a retired credit manager, got 3 percent.

Those numbers look good on paper for DeLay. But, on the ground in Texas, the refrain is: "Tom's in trouble."

What's wrong with 62 percent? That's the smallest share of the Republican primary vote DeLay has secured in any of his re-election campaigns.

GOP strategists know that, when a still-powerful player in the majority party in the House, who has 100 percent name recognition, a huge campaign bankroll and across-the-board support from party leaders can't even get two-thirds of the vote in a Republican primary, he's standing on shaky ground.

And this particular incumbent was already looking vulnerable going into the fall contest.

In November, 2004, before he was indicted and before the name of his friend Jack Abramoff became the new shorthand for corruption in the Capitol, DeLay was reelection against a weak Democratic challenger with a mere 55 percent of the vote.

That was far short of the 64 percent of the vote given by DeLay's 22nd District to President Bush in 2004.

In this November's contests against an aggressive and reasonably well-funded Democrat, former U.S. Representative Nick Lampson, DeLay cannot afford to lose 38 percent of Republicans, as he did in Tuesday's primary.

Indeed, any significant slippage from his Republican base will spell big trouble for the incumbent.

So, while DeLay cleared the Republican primary hurdle, Texas might still mess him in November.

Looking for Votes in All The Wrong Places (continued)

Two weeks after I wrote about the North Carolina Republican Party's dubious effort to collect church membership directories, the IRS issued a report revealing that 37 of 47 churches investigated nationwide during the 2004 campaign were found to have participated in prohibited political activities.

According to the New York Times, "The infractions included distributing materials that encouraged people to vote for particular candidates and giving cash to campaigns."

And it's not just Republicans who were attempting to blur these constitutional lines. The Baltimore Sun reports that Del. Emmet Burns Jr., a democrat from Baltimore County, has received approximately $16,000 from churches since 2000. In all, over 100 churches in Maryland donated money to 40 candidates since 2000.

While there is no federal law preventing candidates from accepting the money, there are prohibitions against tax-exempt groups making contributions of this kind. So, naturally, Burns and some other politicians want the IRS to change the laws so that religious institutions can support candidates however they desire.

But IRS Commissioner Mark Everson says his agency is determined to stop the "staggering increase in money flowing into campaigns…." The agency's new education and enforcement guidelines state clearly, "...all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office."

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, believes the IRS is now committed to enforcement.

"It's no longer possible for critics to say the IRS is blind or toothless," Lynn says, "because this announcement is a pretty major indication that they are serious."And as Frederick Clarkson point out in Talk to Action, "this is certainly bad news for the Christian Right, which has encouraged churches to bend if not break the rules proscribing electoral activities by non-profit, tax-exempt groups."

"It's important for people of faith to be engaged in the political arena," Rev. Robert Chase, Director of Communication for the United Church of Christ notes, "but it is another thing altogether to use religious institutions to register only certain types of voters or support specific candidates for office. This endangers the historic separation of church and state, an important guarantor of democracy."

Let's hope the IRS takes the advice of Rev. Chase to heart and follows through. In these times when so many of our historical rights and freedoms are threatened, it's chilling to contemplate a further deterioration of the separation between church and state.

"America Could Lose Its Army in Iraq"

Imagine this scenario, as described last week in Washington by defense expert and former Senator Gary Hart.

Overnight, Iraq has descended into a full-scale civil war. Shiites and Sunnis are viciously killing each other. Vying for supremacy, both groups come after American troops--who are unable to take sides or quell the violence. Stuck in urban centers, US soldiers are unable to safely flee in time. A bloodbath ensues.

"America could lose its Army in Iraq," Hart told a crowd of journalists and foreign policy junkies at the New America Foundation last Thursday, repeating the warning twice. "See Black Hawk Down and multiply it to the tenth power. Read the history of 1812. Think of the image of US soldiers on helicopters [exiting] Saigon and multiply it to the tenth power."

Remember, Hart's January 2001 report with former Senator Warren Rudman famously predicted a 9/11-style attack on US soil. Where is the Pentagon's contingency plan for such a nightmare Iraq scenario, Hart wonders? Does it even have one?

"I know that sounds apocalyptic, but it's not out of the question," Hart remarked at another event in DC that day. "We need an exit strategy. We have no choice."

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