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The Notion

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

Stem-Cell Hypocrisy

How serious are Republican -- and some Democratic -- politicians who go on and on about the need to restrict embryonic stem-cell research?

Not very.

Stem cell research, which scientists believe holds the promise of cures or treatments for everything from diabetes to Alzheimer's disease, is popular with the American people. But it is unpopular with the faction of the anti-choice movement that tends to be most active in Republican primaries. So a lot of prominent Republican politicians tip their hat to the "pro-life" crowd by backing so-called "anti-cloning" bills that purport to restrict mad science but that are really written to prevent promising research projects from going forward.

The cloning critics seek to energize the faithful by backing these silly bills, while at the same time hoping that no one in the broader electorate will notice.

When the issue does become the fodder for a general election campaign, however, all best are off as, suddenly, stem-cell research critics become stem-cell research advocates.

That's what has happened in Missouri, where Republican U.S. Senator Jim Talent has a long and ugly record as an outspoken advocate for the sort of restrictions on stem-cell research that are favored by the anti-choice movement.

Talent, who has never been a particularly popular senator, faces a tough challenge this year from Democrat Claire McCaskill, the very popular state auditor. McCaskill has actually been running ahead of Talent in some polls. She's a supporter of stem-cell research, who is highlighting that stance in her campaign. "We should be promoting hope for people suffering with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, ALS, spinal cord injuries, and other debilitating diseases," said McCaskill, when she announced her support for a Missouri ballot initiative that seeks to guarantee that research into lifesaving cures can be done in the state.

"Stem cell research holds the promise of saving lives and alleviating the pain and suffering endured by so many of our people," added McCaskill. "This initiative enables Missouri doctors and researches to be at the forefront of lifesaving research and it has my support."

In a state where polls show voters favor embryonic stem-cell research by a 2-1 margin. Talent felt the heat. So, last week, he withdrew as a co-sponsor of a federal anti-cloning bill that that seeks to outlaw what many scientists see as one of the most promising forms of embryonic stem-cell research. Talent's tortured speech announcing his new stance, in which he announced that he had come across "an ethically untroubling way" for obtaining embryonic stem cells that can be used in research, was an attempt to blunt McCaskill's appeal. But, as McCaskill noted, Talent still supports many restrictions on stem-cell research.

"Unfortunately," McCaskill says of Talent, "like too many politicians, he's trying to hide his opposition by dancing around science for politics. In a 30-minute long speech chock full of scientific jargon, he attempted to obfuscate his position and distract Missourians from the real issue: why does he think we should criminalize research instead of providing hope and cures for our people?"

McCaskill adds, with the directness that voters should expect of candidates on these issues: "I don't need 30 minutes or even 30 seconds to tell you where I stand. I support hope, I support science, and I support lifesaving cures. Because desperately ill Missourians deserve hope, not political cover -- and scientists deserve support, not handcuffs."

My Dinner With Ashcroft

I spent this past weekend bunkered in with 350 movement conservatives and some of their favorite pols and strategists – from John Ashcroft to Tom Tancredo to Jim Woolsey --and let me tell you, even many of these folks are openly worried about Republican chances in the Fall.

The Phoenix gathering was the latest edition of David Horowitz's Restoration Weekend, a traditional gathering of the right-wing tribes. And no, I didn't go native. I was merely a panelist on the future of the Democratic Party along with Matt Bai of The New York Times and Democratic consultants Flavia Colgan and Pat Caddell. You can see my personal blog for the Ashcroft jokes.

But here's the serious part: there's a lot of fear and trembling going on among Republicans. A rich sampler from this weekend's panel discussions:

Conservative Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake: He pleaded with fellow conservatives to take the high road of liberalized immigration reform in the escalating debate and not go down the immigrant-bashing path. "I encourage Republicans to not repeat what happened in California in 1994," he said referring to GOP support for Prop 187. "It works for one cycle and then you pay a price for a decade."

Former Congressman Pat Toomey, current head of The Club for Growth: "We have to acknowledge we have a President who is not popular… The war in Iraq is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room and a major downturn could drown anything we do… We won in 1994 because we promised small government and going into the 2006 elections this is key idea we have abandoned."

Former Colorado State Senator John Andrews: "I feel the Republican Party in my state and nationally is a party that has lost its way… we need to find our way back to a reason to vote Republican."

Missouri Lt. Governor Pete Kinder on the state of the party: "The demoralization of the base is real. I hear it everywhere."

Conservative Arizona Congressman John Shaddeg on the Abramoff scandal: "I believe these scandals are the end of the 1994 Revolution… all this seriously threatens the Republican majority. It might be hard to shrink government as we promised. But it's not that hard to be honest and we haven't."

By the way, I had a terrific time.

 

Ted’s Excellent New Adventure

In the New York Times on Friday, Ted Koppel – now a columnist free from the strictures of ABC-Disney – lays it on the line in examining the undeniable role of oil in our continuing occupation of Iraq. Koppel notes, "….America's rapt attention to the security of the Persian Gulf is what it has always been. It's about the oil."

Hmmm….I seem to recall hearing some ideas along those lines – years ago – from the likes of Michael Moore in Farenheit 9/11 and many other lefties & progressives as well. They were each summarily dismissed – not just by the right but also by many in the MSM – as "unpatriotic," "conspiracy-theorists," "paranoid," "un-American," "simplistic," "leftists," etc.

Perhaps now, after three years of confronting the chaos, ineptitude, dishonesty, and failures of Iraq policy, critics will no longer face the scathing, simplistic, backlash that once confronted them.

Time will tell.

Duke Ain't Cheap

There's one thing you can say about Duke Cunningham: He didn't come cheap. Mitchell Wade, the defense contractor who purchased Cunningham's California home for a price inflated by $700,000, today pleaded guilty to showering Duke with $1 million in bribes.

These bribes included, among other things, a $140,000 yacht (the "Duke-Stir"), an 1850s Louis Phillipe commode, Persian rugs, a Rolls Royce and two silver candelabras, all used to "feather his nest in San Diego." The requests came courtesy of Duke's "bribe menu." In return Wade's company MZM earned over $150 million in government contracts, courtesy of Duke's seat on the House defense appropriation subcommittee.

According to his plea Wade also bribed the former executive director of the Army's National Ground Intelligence Center and two sitting members of Congress, Reps. Virgil Goode (R-VA) and Katherine Harris (R-FL).

Yes, the same Katherine Harris who helped hand Bush the election in Florida and is now running for the Senate against Bill Nelson. It's hard to imagine a more deserving target.

"It is a Dick Cheney World Out There..."

Bill Moyers is hitting the road in California for an eight-city speaking tour to raise issues of money and politics. And, as usual, he's got a lot to say about the withering state of our democracy.

But how could anyone think that the Texas-born observer of the American Zeitgeist would avoid comment on the vice presidential "peppering" spree that recently took place in Moyers' home state.

Moyers promises to leave "the rich threads of humor to pluck from the hunting incident in Texas" to The Daily Show's Jon Stewart. But the man who once served as press secretary for former President Lyndon Johnson is intrigued by the backstory of Dick Cheney's trevails that is rich with insight and righteous indignation about what has become of our politics and our public life.

"I can accept Dick Cheney's word that the accident was one of the worst moments of his life. What intrigues me as a journalist now is the rare glimpse we have serendipitously been offered into the tightly knit world of the elites who govern today," says Moyers, who did such a good job of shining the light of public scrutiny on those elites when he hosted PBS's NOW program that Bush administration allies set up a covert campaign to get him off the air.

"The Vice President was hunting on a 50-thousand acre ranch owned by a lobbyist friend who is the heiress to a family fortune of land, cattle, banking and oil (ah, yes, the quickest and surest way to the American dream remains to choose your parents well)," adds Moyers in remarks prepared for his California speaking tour.

"The circumstances of the hunt and the identity of the hunters provoked a lament from The Economist. The most influential pro-business magazine in the world is concerned that hunting in America is becoming a matter of class: the rich are doing more, the working stiffs, less. The annual loss of 1.5 million acres of wildlife habitat and 1 million acres of farm and ranchland to development and sprawl has come "at the expense of ‘The Deer Hunter' crowd in the small towns of the north-east, the rednecks of the south and the cowboys of the west." Their places, says The Economist, are being taken by the affluent who pay plenty for such conveniences as being driven to where the covey cooperatively awaits. The magazine (hardly a Marxist rag, remember) describes Mr. Cheney's own expedition as "a lot closer to ‘Gosford Park' than ‘The Deer Hunter' – a group of fat old toffs waiting for wildlife to be flushed towards them at huge expense.

"At the heart of this story is a metaphor of power. The Vice President turned his host, the lobbyist who is also the ranch owner, into his de facto news manager. She would disclose the shooting only when Cheney was ready and only on his terms. Sure enough, nothing was made public for almost 20 hours until she finally leaked the authorized version to the local newspaper. Ms. Armstrong suggested the blame lay with the victim, who, she indicated, had failed to inform the Vice President of his whereabouts and walked into a hail of friendly fire. Three days later Cheney revised the story and apologized. Don't you wonder what went back and forth with the White House that long night of trying to agree on the official line?

"We do know someone from the hunting party was in touch with Karl Rove at the White House. For certain Rove's the kind of fellow you want on the other end of the line when great concoctions are being hatched, especially if you wish the victim to hang for the crime committed against him."

Describing the whole affair "a study of the inner circle at the top of American politics," Moyers reflects on a recent article by Sidney Blumenthal that notes how incestuous that inner circle has become.

"Armstrong's father invested in Rove's political consulting firm that managed George W. Bush's election as governor of Texas and as president. Her mother, Anne Armstrong, is a longtime Republican activist and donor. Ronald Reagan appointed her to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board after her tenure as Ambassador to the United Kingdom under President Ford, whose chief of staff was a young Dick Cheney," explains Moyers. "Anne Armstrong served on the board of directors of Halliburton that hired Cheney to run the company. Her daughter, Katherine Armstrong, host of the hunting party, was once a lobbyist for the powerful Houston law firm founded by the family of James A. Baker III, who was chief of staff to Reagan, Secretary of State under the first George Bush, and the man designated by the Bush family to make sure the younger Bush was named President in 2000 despite having lost the popular vote. According to Blumenthal, one of her more recent lobbying jobs was with a large construction firm with contracts in Iraq."

Moyers sums things up with an observation of our times that is as telling as it is chilling: "It is a Dick Cheney world out there –- a world where politicians and lobbyists hunt together, dine together, drink together, play together, pray together and prey together, all the while carving up the world according to their own interests."

John Nichols's book The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press) is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. Publisher's Weekly describes it as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney."

X-Offenders

A judge in Colombia has ruled that a bicycle courier be jailed for four years for grabbing a woman's bum while he whizzed past her on the street. When the grabber was caught, Diana Marcela Diaz, the grabbed, was given three choices: let him go, file a complaint, or slap him. She chose the precedent-setting but perhaps less-immediately gratifying route of filing a complaint. Now that cyclist will have four long years to think about what he's done.

The Colombians may have overreacted just a little, but the Italians could take a clue from their playbook. Last weekend it was reported in the Times that Italy's highest court ruled that sexually abusing a girl who is not a virgin is a less serious crime than sexually abusing a virgin. I'd like to face the judge of that court with the same three options that Diana Marcela Diaz had; I think I'd take option 2 AND 3.

L.A. Labor Thrown Into Crisis

The country's most dynamic and progressive union coalition – The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor--finds itself in a world of pain this week, just a few months out from a looming hotel workers' showdown.

Earlier this week, the charismatic County Fed leader Martin Ludlow – a close ally of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa--was forced to resign under the cloud of a criminal investigation. Ludlow reportedly took a plea deal to avoid jail by stepping down after a multi-agency probe turned up evidence that he violated campaign laws when he accepted undisclosed union phone banking support during his 2003 election to the City Council.

This is the second shock to the 800,000 member County Fed in less than a year. Last May, its highly successful leader, Miguel Contreras, died of a sudden heart attack. Contreras had forged the Fed into a political powerhouse whose endorsement was readily sought by aspiring candidates. Contreras, however, had thrown the Fed's support to then-incumbent Mayor James Hahn against challenger Villaraigosa. It was a decision that had deeply split labor ranks; Villaraigosa, a former union organizer, had been considered labor's best friend and seemed the natural favorite for the Fed.

In an ironic twist, Contreras died just days before Villaraigosa's election. In order to mend fences, the County Fed then turned to 41 year old African-American Ludlow--who had been an aide to Villaraigosa--to take over the helm of the organization.

Ludlow artfully held the County Fed together even as its national affiliates went through a divorce last year that split up the AFL-CIO.

His forced resignation has now tossed the union alliance into a deep crisis. In the last few days there had been open speculation that Contreras' widow – hotel workers' leader Maria Elena Durazo--would be given the top post. But a two hour meeting of the County Fed on Thursday ended inconclusively. Another possible contender is Kent Wong, the popular leader of the UCLA labor center. There's no word when the Fed will meet again to try to elect a new head.

 

Days of Rage in Iraq

Iraq is in the early stages of a civil war, as events on the ground make painfully clear. At least 111 people have been killed since Sunni insurgents attacked one of the holiest Shiite mosques yesterday, in what the AP called "two days of rage." Sunnis claim that 168 of their own mosques have been hit in retaliation by Shiite militias. The crossfire claimed the lives of three Iraqi journalists and seven more US troops.

Think Progress reminds us that the CIA's National Intelligence Council assesment in September 2004 warned President Bush that this could happen. From the Washington Post:

 

In the best-case scenario, the NIC said, Iraq could be expected to achieve a "tenuous stability" over the next 18 months. In the worst case, it could dissolve into civil war.

 

The White House, as they've been known to do, ignored the CIA's findings, labeling the professional intelligence community "pessimists and naysayers." Bush called the assessment a "guess."

Of course, prescient critics of the war, such as Senator Robert Byrd, raised these questions before the war authorization vote:

 

What plans do we have to prevent Iraq from breaking up and descending into civil war?

 

None, it turned out. Bush still doesn't understand the magnitude of the civil war or how America's troop presence inflames it.

You know things are going badly for the Administration when even Bill O'Reilly wants to cut and run.

L'Affair Dubai Spins Beyond Satire

The Onion may have grounds for legal action against the Bush administration for unfair competition.

After all, the administration is supposed to make its best effort to manage the affairs of state in a responsible manner. The Onion, a weekly humor publication that plays the news for laughs much as John Stewart's "Daily Show" does, is supposed to satirize the inevitable mistakes, missteps and misdeeds.

But the month of February has seen the administration stealing The Onion's thunder on a regular basis.

First, the vice president shot a guy in the face and then kept the story under wraps for a day.

Then, before the furor over Deadeye Dick's "peppering" incident had died down, the administration got itself embroiled in a controversy over the determination of the president to approve a deal that would put six major U.S. ports under the operational control of a country that the bipartisan 9-11 Commission warned suffers from "a persistent counterterrorism problem."

The absurdity of the moment was placed in stark relief Thursday afternoon, when senior administration officials from the Departments of Defence, State, Treasury and Homeland Security trooped up to Capitol Hill to brief the Senate Armed Services Committee about the plan to let Dubai Ports World, a firm owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)in charge of ports up and down the east coast.

Noting a particularly concerning line in the 9-11 Commission -- "The United Arab Emirates was becoming both a valued counterterrorismally of the United States and a persistent counterterrorism problem" -- U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, asked the administration representatives: "Just raise your hand if anybody (at the witness table) talked to the 9-11 commission," said Levin.

The senator's request was met with blank stares.

It was a priceless moment, indeed, an Onion moment.

That's the problem.

The way the administration is handling L'Affair Dubai is simply unfair to The Onion. How can a satirical newspaper satirize that which is beyond satire? What next? A plan to "fix" Social Security by betting the retirement security of millions of Americans on a stock market gamble? Oh, well, never mind.

One Red State

A friend of mine from South Carolina sent me the most astonishing article on his home state from yesterday's USA Today. Reporter Ron Barnett examines the quixotic quest of Cory Burnell, founder of Christian Exodus, to have all of the nation's evangelical Christian conservatives move to South Carolina.

Hey, why not? Good for the left (we can pick up all those borderline red states) and good for the far right. Tired of all those liberals and activist judges protecting abortion, legalizing gay marriage and funding public schools that teach evolution. Round up the kids, call U-Haul and head to the heart of the Old Confederacy. It's got 750,000 Southern Baptists, Bob Jones University, nice golf courses and rosy real estate values. When the Exodus gets into full swing, Christians can take over state government and pass some real laws. On Burnell's docket: outlaw abortion, mandate life support, install Christian symbols in the statehouse, eliminate public schools, ban government 'taking' of private property. Oh yeah, and one curious item critical of "the perils of imperialist entanglements abroad." Gee, could he mean Iraq?

The sheer absurdity of Christian Exodus (and the mix of values behind it) is a testament to how much the religious right has changed under the Bush administration. Burnell's formula (isolationism + Christian social conservatism + anti-state rhetoric, with a dash of concealed white supremacy) was once boilerplate for the Republican Party. But now, as Esther Kaplan, Gary Younge and Salim Muwakkil all report, the strategists of the religious right have their sights firmly set on international turf and the black church -- with progress on the former and not so much on the latter.

Of course, that's one problem Burnell faces; South Carolina is 30% African American and although most are Baptist, they also poll and vote to the left. His more immediate problem, however, is recruitment. He's only got 20 or so families to move. Oh, and Christian Exodus is based in Texas. And Burnell himself still lives in California. So much for whistling Dixie.

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