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The Notion

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

Feingold's Call for Checks and Balances

Americans ought be listening to Russ Feingold in these defining days for the Republic, because what the Democratic senator from Wisconsin is saying goes to the heart of the question of whether a nation founded in revolt against monarchy will be ruled by laws or by the crude whims of an intemperate sovereign and his out-of-control administration.

Feingold has been fighting for weeks to get the Congress to address the issue of President Bush's illegal approval of warrantless wiretapping of Americans. A small but growing group in Congress, including some prominent Republicans -- most recently, U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., the chair of the House Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence, who this week called for a "complete review" of the National Security Agency domestic spying program -- have begun echoing Feingold's demand that the Constitutional crisis created by the president's wrongdoing be taken seriously.

But too many major media outlets continue to treat the eavesdropping scandal as little more than a political game. They chart the progress of the critics and then measure the extent to which the administration's spin has limited the damage to the president's approval ratings.

Frustrated by the game playing, Feingold went to the floor of the Senate last Tuesday in an effort to break through the spin and speak the blunt truths of the moment.

"Last week the President of the United States gave his State of the Union address, where he spoke of America's leadership in the world, and called on all of us to 'lead this world toward freedom.' Again and again, he invoked the principle of freedom, and how it can transform nations, and empower people around the world," Feingold told the chamber. "But, almost in the same breath, the President openly acknowledged that he has ordered the government to spy on Americans, on American soil, without the warrants required by law. The President issued a call to spread freedom throughout the world, and then he admitted that he has deprived Americans of one of their most basic freedoms under the Fourth Amendment -- to be free from unjustified government intrusion."

The Wisconsinite who emerged as the Capitol's most diligent defender of the Constitution when he cast the sole vote in the Senate against the Patriot Act in 2001 delivered a blistering indictment not just of the president but of those who are treating the debate over the administration's assault on basic liberties as just another fight between political partisans.

"The President was blunt. He said that he had authorized the NSA's domestic spying program, and he made a number of misleading arguments to defend himself. His words got rousing applause from Republicans, and I think even some Democrats," Feingold continued. "The President was blunt, so I will be blunt: This program is breaking the law, and this President is breaking the law. Not only that, he is misleading the American people in his efforts to justify this program."

Noting that many Republican members of the House and Senate cheered the president's defense of his illegal acts, Feingold asked, "How is that worthy of applause? Since when do we celebrate our commander in chief for violating our most basic freedoms, and misleading the American people in the process? When did we start to stand up and cheer for breaking the law? In that moment at the State of the Union, I felt ashamed."

It is time, Feingold explained, for his colleagues to recognize its shame and begin to act honorably.

"Congress," the senator said, "has lost its way if we don't hold this President accountable for his actions."

Feingold is right. But it is not only Congress that must act. The American people need to get into this fight.

The defense of the Constitution against executive lawbreaking is not merely the work of elected legislators.

It must be the work of patriots. Feingold is leading the defense of basic liberties, but we all have a place in this struggle to preserve both the Bill of Rights and an American experiment that is now gravely threatened. Only an outcry from the people will assure that Congress -- and America -- does not lose its way.

Band of Brothers--Brother!

Following up on Ari's post about the Band of Brothers, those military veterans running for Congress as Democrats.

The theory is that as former soldiers they will be immunized against Republican charges that Dems are unpatriotic girly-men who are "soft on defense." (As "Mask" points out in the comments section of Ari's post, running as a vet worked so well for Max Cleland and John Kerry!)

One thing the Band of Brothers strategy will do if it succeeds is to help keep Congress white and male. Of the 56 candidates currently marching under the brotherly battle flag, only three are women. (One of the three, Mishonda Baldwin, is also the only African-American).

So I guess the Dems are giving up on that whole gender-gap equality thing. Remember when Patty Murray ran for Senate as a "mom in tennis shoes"? A mother had better wear combat boots if she hopes to attract the attention of the DNC today!

Do we really want to promote the idea that military service is some kind of necessary item on apolitical resume? That personal machismo is a qualification for office? The BOB strikes me as a gimmick, if not an outright pander to militarism and sexism--time for the daddies to retake the mommy party! Chaaarge! And yet more proof, ladies, that the Dems are writing you off.

Rove Comes Calling

 

Is the White House coming begging to Senate Minority Leader HarryReid? "Karl Rove's back and there's no doubt about that," Reid remarkedat a one-hour on-the-record breakfast sponsored by The AmericanProspect that I attended today. "He's so desperate he's called methree times in the last few weeks." The White House knows it's going toexceed the government's debt limit, Reid said, and they want his help.But there's little agreement between Rove and Reid on the deficit ormany other issues these days. "I don't think Karl Rove's message, ifhe's still out of jail [in 2006], will have the same sound as it did."

 

 

Reid, a pro-life, pro-gun Mormon from Nevada, vacillated betweenthe left and the center before the group of progressive journalists. Herepeatedly praised Russ Feingold as an example of a Democrat who standsup for what he believes in but refused to endorse a timetable for thewithdrawal of troops from Iraq, as Feingold advocates. "I met with theJoints Chiefs of Staff recently and troops are gonna be pulled out ofIraq this year," Reid said, without specifying whether all the troopsshould leave. Feingold was "still really upset" about the compromise reached on the Patriot Act last night, Reid indicated,and will try to slow its passage.

 

 

After the unveiling of their anti-corruption "Honest LeadershipAct," Senate Democrats will focus on "real security," including a planby Indiana Senator Evan Bayh to increase the size of the Army by100,000 troops. "On a number of different directions we're going afternational defense," he said. "We'll be more competitive on that issuethan ever before."

 

 

Reid dismissed an Associated Press story linking him to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, alleging that"no one that gave me any money did anything wrong," though he jokedthat billionaire financier Howard Hughes did hand him $10,000 in cashat the beginning of his political career. He indicated that hesupported the efforts of Senators Dick Durbin and Chris Dodd to promotepublicly financed elections.

 

 

And he seemed downright buoyant about the prospects for Democraticgains in the Senate this year. "If the election were held today theSenate would be tied 50-50," he boasted. "I used to say it would be amiracle to take the Senate. It's not a miracle any more." As to whenthe Democrats would actually unveil a comprehensive agenda, Reid notedthat the GOP's "Contract with America" in 1994 didn't come out untillate September of that year. "We'll roll out one [issue] at a time. BySeptember it will all be out."

 

 

Until then, he'll have his hands full stalling the GOP'slegislative priorities and keeping his divided Democratic caucus inline.

 

 

Our Own 'Downing Street Memo'?

 

For those who had any doubts that the Bush Administration manipulatedintelligence to take us into a disastrous, unprovoked and unnecessarywar, Walter Pincus's front page story in today's WashingtonPost is must reading. Pincus's fine reporting in the monthspreceding the invasion exposed the divisions about the war within theintelligence community and its anger about how information was beingpoliticized. But his stories were almost always buried in the Post'sinside pages.

 

 

Today's story, in my view, is the equivalent of America's Downing Street Memo. PaulR. Pillar, the former CIA official who coordinated US intelligence onthe Middle East until last year now publicly accuses the Bush WhiteHouse of "cherrypicking" intelligence on Iraq to justify its decisionto go to war. "Intelligence," Pillar asserts, "was misused publicly tojustify decision already made..." This is an eerie echo of the famouswords from the Downing Street Memo--in which Britain's MI-6 DirectorRichard Dearlove told British Prime Minister Tony Blair that "theintelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. "

 

 

As Pincus notes, this is the first time that such a senior intelligenceofficer "has so directly and publicly condemned" Bush & Company'shandling of intelligence. Pillar's critique is also one of "the mostsevere indictments of White House actions by a former Bush officialsince Richard C. Clarke , a former National Security council staffmember, went public with his criticism of the administration's handlingof the September 11, 2001, attacks."

 

About that Ban on Drawing Muhammad...

Most comments about the Danish cartoons of Muhammad assert that Muslimsbelieve it is completely taboo to depict him, period. But is the ban ondepicting the prophet really so severe? At Zombietimeyou can view dozens of images of the prophet, including some from theMuslim world: medieval Persian miniatures; a portrait of Muhammad as ayouth by the contemporary Iranian woman painter Oranous (okay byShi'ites because he wasn't the prophet yet); posters being sold in Iraqright now.

From the Middle Ages on, Muhammad has appeared in Western art notinfrequently--in drawings, paintings, book illustrations, comics,advertisements, and on the covers of books and magazines, including arecent issue of Le Nouvel Observateur.

Muhammad has been portrayed by the cartoonist Doug Marlette and hasappeared on South Park. And get this: Muhammad appears on the NorthFrieze in the courtroom of our very own Supreme Court! He's the man withthe scimitar, between Justinian and Charlemagne.

Some of this art is respectful; some fanciful and playful; somesatirical or even crude and vicious. Only once, however, has any of itseemed to bother believers: in 2002 police uncovered a jihadist plan toblow up the church of San Petronio in Bologna, site of a fresco byGiovanni da Modena showing Muhammad being tortured in Hell (this scene,from Dante's Inferno, was also depicted by Gustav Dore, William Blake,Auguste Rodin and Salvador Dali).

I don't know where exactly this clarification takes us. Maybe I'm justirked by lazy pundits who talk about the global uproar as if everyoneshould have known this is what happens when you draw Muhammad:Naturally, believers would go round the bend!

But wait, a solution may be at hand to this whole clash of civilizationsthing. Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly which reprinted theMuhammad-mocking Danish cartoons, says it will publish cartoonssatirizing the Holocaust. I guess they didn't want to be upstaged byIran, where President Ahmadinejad an announced a a contest forHolocaust-mocking cartoons. (This is an advance on his previousposition, which was to deny the Holocaust occurred. Now, it happened,but it's funny.). At last Muslim fundamentalists and free-speech-loving Europeans have found common ground: Anti-semitism!

Beyond Chanukah

So George doesn't know Jack? How then to explain the emails between Abramoff and Washingtonian editor Kim Eisler, published today by Think Progress?

First, Abramoff explains his decision not to travel to Bush's Crawford ranch after he received an invite in 2003:

 

NO, IT WAS THAT I WOULD HAVE HAD TO TRAVEL ON SATURDAY (SHABBOS). YES, I WAS INVITED, DURING THE 2004 CAMPAIGN. IT WAS SATURDAY AUGUST 9, 2003 AT THE RANCH IN CRAWFORD.

 

Second, Abramoff describes nearly a dozen meetings with Bush:

 

HE HAS ONE OF THE BEST MEMORIES OF ANY POLITICIAN I HAVE EVER MET. IT WAS ONE IF [sic] HIS TRADEMARKS, THOUGH OF COURSE HE CAN'T RECALL THAT HE HAS A GREAT MEMORY! THE GUY SAW ME IN ALMOST A DOZEN SETTINGS, AND JOKED WITH ME ABOUT A BUNCH OF THINGS, INCLUDING DETAILS OF MY KIDS. PERHAPS HE HAS FORGOTTEN EVERYTHING. WHO KNOWS.

 

I guess the scandal's moved beyond Chanukah parties. Let's see Scotty spin this.

'Leave No Child Behind'?

President Bush can't seem to tell people enough times, in enough ways, about his self-proclaimed determination to "leave no child behind." The most recent occurrence came, predictably, during his State of the Union address, when he offered this bit of faux-wisdom, "If we ensure that America's children succeed in life, they will ensure that America succeeds in the world."

He then promptly cut Department of Education funding by $2.1 billion and shortchanged No Child Left Behind by $15.4 Billion. He froze Pell grants for the fifth straight year, despite the fact that average tuitions and fees at public universities have risen 40 percent since 2001, pricing more and more young people out of college every day. 19,000 children face elimination from the Head Start Program as his funding fails to keep pace with inflation.

Arlen Specter called the cuts "scandalous." One wonders what the President might say if he dropped the platitudes and actually spoke the truth about his values when it comes to young people. How might that read exactly? I welcome submissions.

Fightin' Dems

Those critics who systematically caricature the Democratic Party as "soft on defense" should've headed down to the National Mall in Washington on this brisk Wednesday morning. Against the backdrop of the US Capitol, 40 of the 55 veterans running as Democrats for Congress in 2006 assembled "to take the flag out of the hands of Karl Rove and his political assasins," said Eric Massa, a 24-year Navy Officer vying for a seat in upstate New York.

These "Band of Brothers," including nine Iraq veterans, saluted their country but implored the need for a "change of course" on the war, Congressional corruption, VA health care and basic bread-and-butter issues.

The Fighting Dems include:

** Bill Winter, a 10-year Marine Corps and Navy vet who's running against the vile immigrant-basher Rep. Tom Tancredo in suburban Denver, Colorado.

** Jim Nelson, a self-described "military veteran, Methodist minister and moderate Democrat" who's seeking the Georgia seat of Rep. Jack Kingston, one of Tom DeLay's closest allies in the House.

** Joe Sulzer, a Vietnam vet and mayor of Chillicothe, Ohio, who wants to oust the soon-to-be-indicted Rep. Bob Ney.

** Mishonda Baldwin, a Desert Storm vet who's trying to become the first African-American woman elected to the House from Maryland.

GOP attack dogs may have been able to swift boat the hapless John Kerry. Let them try and do it to over fifty vets. As Tim Dunn, an Iraq war vet from Fayetteville, North Carolina, put it: "It's time to take the Hill."

George's Curious Tricks and Gimmicks

Despite his best efforts, George Bush's recent budget places his values in plain view for all of America to see. Mr. Bush plans to cut $65 billion from domestic spending on programs like Medicare and Medicaid, low-income housing, education, and food stamps, while extending his favorite petproject--tax cuts for the very wealthy. Even worse, in order to make the claim that he will cut the deficit in half before leaving office, Mr. Bush asks that Congress adopt a brand new approach to budgeting. Under this plan, Congress would not treat an extension of Bush's permanent tax cuts as having any cost!

As Robert Greenstein, director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said in the New York Times, "[This] is the most flagrant gimmick in the history of the U.S. budget. It's so flagrant," Greenstein added, " that I don't think even Congress will give it to them." (Here's hoping that we see some spine in these next days and weeks.) But there are some things Mr. Bush just can't hide: like not counting the costs of the war in Iraq; cutting food programs for the elderly; reducing spending in poor schools, job training, and on Pell grants that make college affordable. Even his pledge to end "our addiction to oil" seems to have slipped by the wayside as this budget actually cuts funding for energy efficiency. Let's keep this conversation going… find all the ways Mr. Bush betrays his so-called "values" in this budget, while also trying to slip real costs under the rug.

To Bash Or Not To Bash?

Los Angeles-based Gay Republican activist and blogger Scott Schmidt worries that his party –-in the run-up to the November elections-- is about to take a suicidal turn toward immigrant bashing. He remembers the Republican electoral disaster that ensued after then-Governor Pete Wilson tried to ride a xenophobic wave: Wilson got re-elected but the state GOP as much as imploded under a Latino backlash.

Currently, the national GOP seems split over what to do about immigration. President Bush and the more corporate wing of the party who have endorsed at least some tepid immigration liberalization, are under attack from their restrictionist right flank. While some analysts believe the Republicans are more interested in winning over the growing Latino vote than they are in pandering to xenophobes, Schmidt fears the opposite. He points to the virulent public comments made by L.A. GOP Chairwoman Linda Boyd to last week's State of the Union response offered in Spanish by Angeleno Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Schmidt writes:

Chairman Boyd's "scorecard" on Villaraigosa's record blamed illegal immigrants for the City's failing healthcare system, astronomical high school drop-out rate and prison overcrowding. As a member of Boyd's Executive Committee of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, I blushed in embarrassment when she compared Villaraigosa to the dictators Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro.

And if you doubt that immigrant-bashing isn't on the GOP Agenda in 2006, take a look at the agenda for this weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference. It's the first, second, third and fourth issue to be discussed.

Let's hope Schmidt is wrong and the temptation to immigrant-bash will be foresworn. More than ever, we need comprehensive immigration reform and for the first time in a long time a lot of Republicans – from John McCain to Jeff Flake are supporting the idea. Let's hope that in the internal Republican debate they prevail over the Minuteman-types.

Also, take a moment to check out my personal blog for a tribute to Neil Postman.

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