The Nation

Crowds Press Antiwar Message Nationwide

"I want Bush to see that his people are against the war," declared 38-year-old Aris Cisneros, as he and his two childern joined a demonstration that filled the streets of downtown San Francisco.

Cisneros' sentiments were echoed coast to coast Saturday by the hundreds of thousands of Americans who marched in Washington, San Francisco and dozens of other communities in protest against the Bush administration's preparation for war with Iraq.

Braving freezing temperatures in Washington, tens of thousands of activists who had traveled by bus from as far away as Minnesota cheered as actress Jessica Lange declared, "The path this administration is on is wrong and we object. It is an immoral war they are planning and we must not be silenced."

"All this talk of war, all this rhetoric has been an excellent cover, an excellent camouflage, to turn back the clock on civil rights, on woman's rights, on social justice and on environmental policies," shouted Lange, who said she had come to Washington to tell the president: "We are the people. You do not speak for us."

Bush had hightailed it off to Camp David for the weekend. But the president and his aides could not have been unaware of the rising level of anti-war activism, of which Saturday's protests were merely the latest manifestation. On Thursday, the Chicago City Council voted 46-1 for a resolution expressing opposition to a pre-emptive attack against Iraq, making it the largest of more than 40 cities across the country to embrace an anti-war stance. Several days earlier, 110 officers from unions across the country had gathered in Chicago to organize US Labor Against the War with a declaration that "Bush's drive for war serves as a cover and distraction for the sinking economy, corporate corruption and layoffs."

Recent national polls have tracked a steady erosion of approval ratings for the president, which last week dropped below 60 percent for the first time since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. On Saturday, a new poll from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that 53 percent of Americans believe the president has so far failed to adequately justified ordering the United States military to invade Iraq and depose Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. "It sounds like a lot of you don't have respect for your president," joked a member of the British rock band Chumbawamba, as the group opened the Washington rally. The group debuted a new anti-war song, "Jacob's Ladder (Not In Our Name)" that complains about how "9/11 got branded, 9/11 got sold" as part of the Bush administration scheming to start a war with Iraq.

Again and again Saturday, at protests across the country, speakers described the administration's plans for launching a war against Iraq as a scheme to distract Americans from the president's domestic failures. "Bush keeps talking about weapons of mass destruction," said the Rev. Graylan Hagler of Washington's Plymouth Congregational Church told the rally outside the Capitol. "When I look at the White House I am much more worried about words of mass deception."

The rally that packed the National Mall in Washington was estimated by International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism) coalition organizers to have drawn several hundred thousand people, a number DC police failed to either refute or confirm. The San Francisco rally was said to have attracted more than 100,000 to hear Joan Baez sing anti-war songs and actor Martin Sheen declare: "We want to end our long and shameful silence here today and say 'No' to death and war. From this time forth, may all our thoughts, words and deeds be a nonviolent resistance to all violence. Let my country awake."

At least three thousand people demonstrated in Montpelier, Vermont. Several thousand people marched in Portland, Oregon. Thousands more hit the streets in Albuquerque, Tampa, Indianapolis and college towns such as Madison, Wisconsin. Protesters on the Las Vegas strip hoisted a sign that read: "Elvis hates war."

The historic figure most referenced at the demonstrations was not that "king,' however, On the eve of the national holiday marking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr's birth, the slain civil rights leader's commitment to peace was referenced frequently by those who knew him, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who addressed the Washington rally, to those who have followed in his tradition.

"If Dr. King was here to celebrate his birthday, Mr. Bush, he would not be inside preparing for military build up," Rev. Al Sharpton told the Washington demonstrators. "He'd be outside saying, ‘Give peace a chance."

Sharpton closed his speech to thunderous applause as he declared, "Happy Birthday, Martin – just like Bush's son is in the White House, your children are here (demonstrating) today."

Cities For Peace

As the troop buildup continues, the antiwar movement has gone from emerging to here. Ruth Rosen was particularly optimistic in an op-ed in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle. The surge of organizing is remarkable given that war has not yet begun, nor it is absolutely certain that it will. There are marches, teach-ins and protests being feverishly planned, including what will likely be a big one scheduled for DC this Saturday. As Esther Kaplan said in a recent Nation article, the strength of the opposition is not its unity, but its variety, as a raft of groups with different politics employ a diversity of tactics.

United For Peace has been a pivotal center of organizing since its founding late last year. An ecumenical network of coalitions, the UFP site is the best place to see the wide pantheon of upcoming antiwar protests. And organizers everywhere are invited to post info on their particular projects and events. A related campaign, Cities For Peace, was recently successful in convincing its 34th US city council to adopt a resolution against an invasion of Iraq.

A rapidly growing network working to convince civic bodies to pass antiwar resolutions, Cities For Peace is a collection of educators, activists and community, religious and business leaders, all united in their joint opposition to Bush's call for war. Local resolutions, of course, have no role in shaping Federal policy, but they are significant in underscoring the widespread opposition to US military action against Iraq. These resolutions also serve to highlight the impact of the cost that war will have on city and state budgets and critical social services. Check out CFP and see how to launch a resolution campaign in your community.

And watch this space for much more about antiwar initiatives.

Class Warfare By (Fuzzy) Numbers

How does he do it? Every day Ari Fleischer takes the stand--so to speak--but, luckily for him, it's not under oath. That is, he provides a briefing in the White House press room and emits--oh, how to say it politely?--the most creative statements in defense of his boss's policies. A plainspoken fella--someone like our tax-cutter-in-chief--might feel compelled to brand a deceptive answer a "lie." But in the case of Fleischer v. Truth , I'm going to let you be the jury.

The case before us concerns the obsession of a powerful man and how far that man and his most trusted aides will go to serve that all-consuming passion. In other words, George W. Bush and tax cuts loaded for the well-to-do (a.k.a. people like him). After Bush unveiled his bold plan--the size of which was doubled at Bush's insistence--the task of defending the proposal (which included deep-sixing the tax on certain dividends and accelerating the scheduled reductions in income tax rates) fell to Fleischer. The President, before releasing (or unleashing) the package, had launched a preemptive strike against his critics, warning them not to engage in "class warfare" in their inevitable assault upon his tax scheme. Bush's stance provokes a natural question: why is it that handing out more money to the rich than to middle- and low-income people is not class warfare but merely noting the disparity is class warfare? (Let us stipulate that class warfare is such an ugly, anti-American tactic that any proper-thinking person ought to recoil from the charge, even though that should not always be so.)

Enter Fleischer. At the January 9 White House briefing, a reporter asked, "The President used the phrase 'class warfare' again today, alluding to criticism of his tax plan. Why is it class warfare to point out that the overwhelming majority of the tax cut would go to the wealthiest people in the country?" Fleischer answered, "Well, I'll tell you, it's class warfare to say that there are wrong people in America and these wrong people are not deserving of tax relief. The President doesn't look at the American people and say, I'm from the government, I know who the right people are -- I'm from the government, I know who the wrong people are. The President believes that's a divisive approach."

But the President does indeed say, "I'm from the government, and I know who the right people are." In this instance, he is saying that the "right people" (those deserving of a tax cut) are people who hold stocks--outside of 401(k)s and other tax-free retirement accounts--that pay out dividends. What about investors who place their money elsewhere? Why won't interest on a certificate of deposit be tax-free, under the new Bush plan? Bush is indeed deciding who gets a break. He also proposed expanding the child credit. That hardly rewards singles or couples without young ones. Tax policy is about choices, about who gets what--and choices deserve to be judged.

At the same briefing, Fleischer was pressed further on the class-warfare business. He maintained "it's inaccurate to say that the benefits will go to the wealthy" and that "because it's inaccurate, [this criticism] is used in...a way to divide and to play class warfare, in an effort to portray some Americans as unworthy of tax relief and other Americans as worthy of tax relief based on their class."

Using Fleischer's standard, Bush, by focusing on income taxes as opposed to, say, payroll taxes, is determining that low-income Americans (who do not make enough to pay income taxes but who are hit by payroll taxes) are "unworthy of tax relief." Moreover, what is inaccurate about the charge that the rich would make out like bandits under Bush's tax proposal? Citizens for Tax Justice report that one-third of the tax cut would flow to the top 1 percent (taxpayers with incomes over $374,000) in 2003. Almost half would go to the top 5 percent ($154,000 and above.) As for the top 20 percent ($77,000 and up)--they would get over three-quarters. The lower 60 percent (those pulling in $46,000 and less) would bag only 8.4 percent. How could Fleischer claim that a plan that eliminates dividend taxes and lowers the top income tax rate does not reward the well-to-do? But he did. The CTJ numbers would have to be inverted--be off by a factor of 7 or more--for Fleischer to be in the right.

There's more. Having pooh-poohed any bias toward the well-heeled, Fleischer then went on to praise the progressivity of Bush's initiative. "Because the share of taxes paid by people at the top actually goes up," he said, "because as you remove people from the bottom of the rolls...you have fewer people actually paying any taxes at all at the bottom. Therefore, the burden that is left is shared increasingly with those who remain at the top." That is correct. But while the rich may end up paying more percentage-wise, what counts--for them, of course, and for the federal budget--is what's taken out of their pockets. In that regard, their "relief" is much more--both in terms of their real tax bill and as a percentage of their income--than lower-end taxpayers. Moreover, the reduction in revenue will somehow have to be covered--by government borrowing or program cuts that tend to be of more need to low-income individuals.

In promoting Bush's contribution to progressive taxation, Fleischer undermined part of the reasoning for the tax cuts. "Let me address," he said, "one thing about why this issue about who benefits from tax cuts, I think, is such a different issue in Washington than it is in the real world. If you make $30,000 a year, and you pay, for example, $2,000 in taxes, and you receive a $1,000 tax cut, you just received a 50 percent cut in your taxes. A thousand dollars to somebody who makes $30,000 a year means all the world to them. It is a huge difference in their life. Take somebody toward the top end of the scale, somebody who makes $200,000, and they pay $50,000 in taxes. To begin with, they pay far more in income taxes, a point which opponents of the President never make. They pay far more in income taxes than others who earn less. They receive a tax cut that in dollar amounts may be larger than somebody who receives less. To them, that tax cut won't change their life as much as it does somebody who doesn't earn as much. Their life will change more so, more beneficially, than somebody toward the top."

First, his example is not supported by the CTJ numbers. According to that analysis, the average taxpayer in the $29,000-to-$46,000 income group (the middle 20 percent) will receive a total of $289 from these tax cuts in 2003. That's much less than the $1000 figure Fleischer used in his anecdote. Putting that aside, Fleischer was essentially arguing that the big earners won't see their lives changed drastically by the tax cuts. So why bother? Why defund the federal government--at a time of war, maybe two wars, maybe more--if it's no big diff to the main beneficiaries? Similarly, if it's so important to have a large impact on the lives of the lower earners, why not send more relief their way?

Fleischer engaged in additional arithmetic acrobatics. At his January 6 briefing, he pushed the tax cuts as a package that would provide 92 million taxpayers with an average tax cut of $1,083 in 2003. This is about as disingenuous as it gets. The CTJ numbers show that most of the bottom 80 percent ($77,000 and less) receive much less than one thousand bucks. The average gain for taxpayers in the $46,000-to-$77,000 slice (the second quintile) is $657. Obviously, the people below will get less. According to the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center, nearly 80 percent of income tax filers would receive a tax cut below $1083. Almost half of all tax filers would get a tax cut of less than $100. The average tax cut only hits four digits because so much is tossed at the top 20 percent. That raises the average--but has no real consequence for the under-$75,000 crowd.

When asked whether the White House disputed the notion that most of the benefits from eliminating the dividend tax would end up with better-off taxpayers, Fleischer responded, "When you look at the statistics, more than half the money from dividend taxation goes to seniors." But being a senior is not inconsistent with being wealthy. The Tax Policy Center calculates that 40 percent of the dividend-exemption benefits that would accrue to the elderly will land in the hands of seniors with incomes exceeding $200,000. Nearly three-quarters would go to those with incomes above $75,000. Fleischer was being misleading. Even if the elderly do claim half of the dividend exemption tax cut, most of that half would find its way to the top 20 percent of seniors. The Bush plans helps rich people--young and old.

Fleischer has not been the only dissembler. In his speech unveiling his tax plan, Bush sold his package by noting that a family of four making $40,000 would see its taxes in 2003 fall a whopping 96 percent from $1,178 to $45--mostly due to the expansion of the child credit. (Funny, Bush didn't tell us how much a single-parent HMO CEO would save.) As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes, Bush's example could come true. But it adds, "the tax cuts that would benefit this family constitute less than one-quarter of the overall cost of the bill." In other words, you could dump three-quarters of his package and still assist middle-income families. To suggest this package overall is of direct assistance to middle- and lower-income individuals is dishonest. Only pieces of it--the smaller pieces--do that. Like press secretary, like president. The Bush tax cut is literally class warfare by numbers.

George W. Lieberman

If there was one thing that rational political observers agreed upon after last November's Democratic debacle, it was that Democrats need to do a much better job of distinguishing themselves from the Republicans.

That recognition should dim the prospects of Joe Lieberman as a serious presidential prospect in 2004. After all, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has noted, Lieberman is famous for taking conservative stands that "rankle (the) liberal Democrats who comprise the core of the party."

Yet, with his Monday declaration, Lieberman is officially in the running. And by many estimations -- especially those of conservative commentators for whom Lieberman has long been the Democrat of choice -- he is a leading contender for his party's nomination.

Lieberman's position at or near the head of the pack of Democratic contenders has more to do with the fact that he was the party's 2000 vice-presidential nominee than with enthusiasm among Democrats for his positions. That's because, while he seeks to be the party's standard-bearer in the 2004 contest, he has been a frequent and enthusiastic ally of the Bush administration on many of the most critical issues of the past two years.

Lieberman says he wants to campaign as "a different kind of Democrat." That he certainly is.

While the majority of Congressional Democrats have expressed clear reservations about the Bush administration's rush to launch a war with Iraq, for instance, Lieberman has been cheerleader-in-chief for the Bush line.

Even before the president began pressing for war with Iraq, Lieberman was beating the battle drums for "regime change." One of the leading Senate backers of the 1991 Persian Gulf war resolution -- which was supported by only 10 of 55 Democrats in the Senate at the time -- he remains a far more outspoken advocate for a new war with Iraq than many Republicans. Lieberman co-sponsored the Senate resolution authorizing President Bush to wage war against Iraq. Indeed, at the Stamford, Connecticut, press conference where he announced his candidacy Monday, Lieberman declared, "I'm grateful that President Bush has focused on Iraq."

Lieberman went on to criticize Bush for being too soft on North Korea, criticizing the administration for "taking the military option off the table" with regard to the regime in Pyongyang.

In addition to promoting a Republican-lite line regarding foreign policy, Lieberman frequently echoes the GOP line on domestic social and economic issues. To a greater extent than any other Democrat seeking the 2004 nomination at this point, Lieberman has found himself in coalition with the religious right. Lieberman has made common cause with former Vice President Dan Quayle, the Rev. Pat Robertson, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and others who condemn the entertainment industry for promoting what the senator calls "amoral" programming.

Lieberman has been the Bush administration's most prominent Democratic ally in efforts to develop voucher programs to divert public funds to private schools. He's also a leading supporter of proposals to allow moments of silence in public school classrooms, when Lieberman acknowledges that students could engage in prayer. During the 2000 campaign, it was not Bush, the born-again Christian Republican, but Lieberman, the Orthodox Jewish Democrat, who said of Americans: "As a people we need to reaffirm our faith and renew the dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God's purpose."

Lieberman is not so rigid a conservative as some of his Republican allies in debates over vouchers, school prayer and forcing standards on the entertainment industry - like many New England Republicans, for instance, he supports reproductive and gay rights. He has a far better record on race-related issues than southern Republicans such as former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi. And he is generally more easygoing than his Republican counterparts in the Congress. But Lieberman's much-reported public moralizing led Rabbi Michael Lerner to comment that, "Lieberman may be a committed Orthodox Jew in his personal practice, but in his role as a public spokesperson he has gone far away from the best aspects of the Jewish tradition. He has none of that prophetic voice that leads Jews to criticize our own Jewish community and Israel in the name of Torah values. He has none of that Jewish sensitivity to the oppressed that would place their needs above the needs of the wealthy."

There is no question that Lieberman's greatest area of common cause with conservative Republicans has been on issues of concern to corporations. That was obvious during the 107th Congress when, as chair of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and one of the most prominent Democrats in the Senate, he failed to push for the sort of aggressive, no-stones-unturned investigations of corporate ethics and responsibility that the Enron, WorldCom and Global Crossing scandals demanded.

Lieberman's allegiance to the Bush administration's agenda was on display during 2002's extended debate over whether Congress should hand the Bush Administration Fast Track authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas. Bitterly opposed by organized labor, environmental, farm, consumer and human rights groups, the Fast Track proposal was the top priority of corporate interests during the 107th Congress.

That was hardly the only example of Lieberman siding with corporate interests in opposition to labor and environmental groups on trade issues. His has been a consistent vote in favor of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Most-Favored-Nation trading status for China and the general corporate free-trade agenda, paralleling the position of corporation-funded and militantly pro-business Democratic Leadership Council.

Lieberman, a former DLC chair, said that his selection as the Democratic party's 2000 vice presidential nominee "was surely a recognition of the enduring values and new ideas of the New Democratic movement." About that, he is surely correct.

The question that remains is this one: Do the voters who will decide the Democratic primaries and caucuses of 2004 really share the values of Lieberman and other DLC stalwarts who have battled to steer the party to the right? Or will they reject a Lieberman candidacy that is guaranteed to blur the margins of distinction between the two major parties even more than in the disasterous 2002 election cycle?

As George Edwards, a presidential historian at Texas A&M University replied when asked about Lieberman's prospects as a presidential contender: "Democrats might want someone with a more of a Democratic edge."

War is Not Inevitable

Regardless of the outcome of weapons inspections, the Bush Administration seems poised to soon launch an invasion of Iraq. Join Tony Kushner, http://www.thenation.com/directory/bios/bio.mhtml?id=22 "> Katha Pollitt , Janeane Garofalo, Noam Chomsky, Barbara Ehrenreich, Edward Said and many others in endorsing the revitalized Campaign for Peace & Democracy's call for a new, democratic foreign policy that opposes both Saddam Hussein and a US invasion of Iraq. And watch this space for much more about upcoming antiwar plans.

They're Off! Here Come the Candidates

Like birds on a wire, Democratic presidential wannabes are flapping their wings and leaving the perch at the same time. Or are they more akin to lemmings? North Carolina Senator John Edwards threw his fine head of hair into the ring last week by declaring the establishment of an exploratory campaign. As soon as he did, outgoing House minority leader Richard Gephardt--the Speaker who never was--announced his exploratory committee would pitch camp. That prompted aides and pals of Senator Tom Daschle, who lost his title as Senate Majority Leader this past election, to inform reporters their man was about to do the same. [UPDATE: On January 7, the Daschle crew spread the word that Daschle during the final countdown had decided to abort the misssion.] And one-time charlatan and current-day community activist Al Sharpton said on January 3 that, he, too, had an exploratory committee under construction.

This quartet joins Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and just-leaving Governor Howard Dean of Vermont, who each have opened their own exploratory campaign. (Funny thing about these exploratory committees--they almost always find what they set out to look for: a reason why their sponsor should formally declare himself a candidate for president.) Waiting in the wings--but probably not for long--is Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman. Others Democrats who have been asked--or have asked to be asked--about their presidential desires include Delaware Senator Joe Biden, Florida Senator Bob Graham, Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, former NATO commander and Iraq war skeptic Wesley Clark, Representative Dennis Kucinich, who heads the Progressive Caucus in the House, and one-time scandalized presidential candidate Gary Hart, who has enjoyed a post-9/11 resurgence as a terrorism egghead.

As soon as Al Gore yanked himself out of the race, the others lunged. They had strong motivation to move fast. The Democrats, thank to party chairman Terry McAuliffe, have frontloaded their primaries next year. There won't be much time for any one candidate to build momentum by winning here and there over the course of a couple months. The eventual nominee will likely be whoever is left standing after the initial round. Which means the early prepping is more crucial than ever. Gore's will-he-or-won't-he bit kept the race frozen. But the other contenders were eager to enlist consultants and fundraisers. The first pre-primary season involves competition for the party professionals, who themselves are usually anxious to sign up with a candidate early. (They then can start billing right away and, probably just as important, can maximize their influence with their new boss.) Next comes another pre-primary season--the money-chase, during which candidates are expected to prove their legitimacy by raising millions of dollars from friends and strangers. (Sharpton may get a bye in this round.)

Look at the stories that accompanied Edward's entry into the race (which was purposefully scheduled for the slow news week of New Year's). Most contained the obligatory paragraph (or more) about questions surrounding his fundraising ability. He has only campaigned once before--in 1998 for the Senate--and used millions of dollars from the personal fortune he amassed as a trial lawyer to pay for that expensive bid. Mr. Fresh Face may end up wowing the Democratic deep-pockets, but old-dogs Gephardt, Kerry, Daschle, and Lieberman each have extensive fund-grubbing experience, a natural base of contributors (Lieberman, for example, can call on the insurance industry of his home state, Jewish-Americans, and the corporate sponsors of the Democratic Leadership Council, which he once chaired), and a long list of potential donors. Edwards and Dean may have trouble keeping up in the ka-ching department, but, unlike the Republican primary contest of 2000 (in which major contenders dropped out, citing financing problems in the face of George W. Bush's mega-money machine), the Democratic nomination battle probably will offer voters several candidates who are, as the pros like to say, "competitive."

So with the hares out on the track, it's time for an early run-down of the already-announced or soon-to-be--in no special order.

Lieberman. Would he join the current race had Gore in 2000 not selected him, over Kerry and Edwards, as his soon-to-be recount-mate? Lieberman clearly relished the attention, and he appears to want more. He has always been able to draw the television cameras, often with his self-righteous, finger-wagging brand of guilt-tripping cultural conservatism. But he knows that in a presidential cycle, it's the Dems who run who will get the Larry King invitations. The big question: what does Lieberman offer Democratic primary voters? Are they pining for a politician who scolds Hollywood? Or a pro-business DLCer who helped block the establishment of stricter accounting rules for corporations? Lieberman has a decent environmental record, and in the past he has shown faint stirrings of consumer protectionism. He pushed for the independent 9/11 commission and a new Homeland Security Department. But he is best known for his center-right positioning within the party. In a crowded field, that might permit him to build a niche, but it is not the sort of politics that typically excites Democrats in the primaries. Will he have a claim on Gore-Lieberman loyalists? Doubtful. Voters have short memories. Moreover, in 2000, he was a sidecar. Gore turned to Lieberman, who had chastised Bill Clinton, to obtain non-Monica balance. Sidecars do not accelerate on their own.

Obvious point: He is Jewish, and Jews make up 2.2 percent of the population. Voters tend to vote for pols who they sense are like them. Can Lieberman's Jewish piety be a substitute for default-position Christianity?

Less-than-obvious point: If there is--God forbid (as Lieberman would say more than once)--a cataclysmic event and Bush has failed to prevent it or has responded poorly, might Democratic voters (and independents in states where they can vote in a party's primary) hunger for a preachy leader who can speak to the other side?

Edwards. He says he wants to be president to help "regular people." He really cares about "regular people." And, by the way, do you know he has policy proposals that will benefit "regular people." As a Washington p.r. specialist said to me recently, "I don't know if that is a good choice of words. Most people like to think of themselves as 'special,' not 'regular.'" Edwards, the son of a mill worker, is casting himself as a Southern populist, and he's blasting the latest Bush tax cuts, while calling on his fellow Dems to spend less. He is the only drawler in the contest, but the millionaire-lawyer rates low on the "Bubba" scale. Does he start with a regional base? Maybe. (Quick, Edwards, name five NASCAR drivers.) But political handicappers say he's not that popular in his home state--and he is up for reelection next year. Should he stay (in NC) or should he go (national)? Edwards can be impressive at a committee hearing. Over a year ago, at a judiciary committee session, he sliced and diced Attorney General John Ashcroft on the subject of military tribunals. It was as entertaining as watching a television court drama or the big trial scene of a Grisham movie. But when he appeared before a group of progressive activists and policy-shapers last spring, he was flat. Edwards kept asserting his concern for RPs, but displayed little depth. Yet in a more intimate meeting with possible left-leaning donors he dazzled.

Obvious point: A measly four years in public office. Before that he only voted in seven out of thirteen elections. And he doesn't remember who he fancied in the 1992 Democratic primary contest. These are not the times for on-the-job training at the White House. Gray hair trumps good hair.

Less-than-obvious point: Edwards is a fast learner. He--or his staff--are able to jump into issues, such as homeland security, privacy, or intelligence-gathering, and offer substantial (if not always correct) ideas.

Kerry. If Democratic voters crave gravitas and seriousness, John Kerry can supply it in buckets. The rap on this Vietnam war hero who became a leading and eloquent war opponent is that he is too somber, too patrician (a result of establishment Yankee breeding), that he lacks the "touch" of successful street-level pols. More charisma than charm. He's been working on that, telling reporters about his motorcycle jaunts. Policy-wise, he's taken a lead among Democrats in opposing Bush's tax cuts and questioning (not too harshly) Bush's conduct of the war on terrorism. But he did vote to grant Bush the power to go to war against Saddam Hussein when Bush sees fit. The enviros consider Kerry a stalwart ally; he promised to filibuster legislation that would open the Alaskan wilderness to oil drilling. He has supported public financing for elections. Kerry does have a tendency to look for ways to distinguish himself ideologically from his state's senior senator, Ted Kennedy, the liberal's liberal. Ten years ago, he raised what he would call "hard questions" about affirmative action. That infuriated civil rights advocates, even though Kerry declared he did not intend to retreat on his support for affirmative action. He has been an ardent free-trader and voted for welfare-reform. After the state teacher's union rallied members for Kerry during his tough 1996 reelection contest, he came out against teacher tenure and attacked the union's contracts.

Of the Democratic contestants, Kerry is one of the few--if not the only one--to have demonstrated political courage. In the 1980s, as chairman of a foreign affairs subcommittee, he investigated the contra-drug connection (and what the CIA knew of it), the BCCI scandal (which involved a crooked, politically wired bank), and Manuel Noriega, the drugged-up, CIA-linked Panamanian dictator. For all this, Kerry took a lot of crap--from the Republican White House, the CIA, and his fellow Democrats. He hung tough.

Obvious point: A liberal (whether he says so or not) from Massachusetts. End of story.

Less-than-obvious point: Kerry has, at times, been a dispassionate advocate driven by deep concerns. Can he stay in touch with his inner-crusader?

Gephardt. One mo' time. There is no one in the pack who appears to have more desire to be president. Of the first wave, he is the only guy who has previously sought the White House. In the 1988 race, he won the Iowa caucuses, was then savagely attacked by his Democratic foes for having flip-flopped on issues, came in second in New Hampshire, and ran out of money and gas. His twenty-six-year-long career has been marked by a conflict between two Gephardts. There's been the Gephardt who sought to add corporate funding to the financial base of the party and who leaned toward New Democratism (as a founder of the DLC), and there's been the Gephardt who champions labor unions and working-families-first economics and challenges the imperatives of corporate-friendly free trade. The elections of 1994, in which Newt Gingrich and the Republicans gained control of the House, appears, in retrospect, to have pushed him solidly to the non-NewDem side. But 9/11 was rough for this politician. He surgically attached himself to the President on national security matters, believing he still could assail Bush for poorly serving the public on the domestic front. It didn't wash. You cannot praise a commander-in-chief for doing a wonderful job protecting Americans and then turn around and say, "By the way, this SOB is an untrustworthy corporate-kowtower who wants to screw working Americans in order to help out his pals at the country club." Maybe there was no winning message that could have been crafted for the Democrats in the post-9/11 environment. Still, something would have been better than nothing. Before the elections, one poll showed that few voters had any idea what the Dems would do if they controlled Congress (while these people believed they did have a fix on GOP intentions). That was Gephardt's bad. And in the course of messing up, he undermined the efforts of House Democrats who tried to block the legislation authorizing Bush to declare war on Iraq. These Democrats comprised a majority of his caucus.

Obvious point: Lots of friends in labor, but in four straight elections, he failed to win back the House. Why should the Democrats give this guy the keys to the car? Can AFL-CIO president John Sweeney break the news to him?

Less-than-obvious point: Of all the possible candidates, Gephardt will be less able to criticize Bush should the president not have a good war in Iraq. But if the economy derails, Gephardt has more experience than the others in talking (and thinking) about the fine details of economic policy.

Daschle. [He's out of it. But for those readers already nostalgic for the near-campaign of Tom Daschle, here is what I had to say about his prospective bid before he bailed.] Loses the Senate, looks for a promotion. Daschle did not embrace Commander Bush as passionately as Gephardt did, but he deserves a portion of the blame for his party's inability to promote an effective message in the last elections. To be fair, as Senate majority leader, Daschle had to corral an ideologically incoherent collection of full or partial egomaniacs, while defending a one-vote majority. How could anyone get Zell Miller and Barbara Boxer to pull together? Perhaps that was beyond the powers of a mere mortal. Daschle, certainly, was unable to keep the Senate Democrats united against Bush's massive, feed-the-rich tax cuts, and that put them in a box from the outset. On occasion, he has been a tough political player--he did orchestrate the Jeffords jump--but always comporting himself with a Midwestern niceness. In the recent Senate contest in South Dakota--a proxy battle between Daschle and Bush--Daschle barely managed a win in his own backyard, as the Democratic incumbent, Tim Johnson, squeaked past the White House's handpicked candidate, John Thune, by only 524 votes. At a Washington, DC, memorial service for Paul Wellstone in November, Daschle delivered a moving eulogy in which he praised his deceased colleague for having been "the soul of the Senate." A loaded question for Daschle: why did the Senate, on your watch, need a soul? Freed of the burden of leading the unleadable, will Daschle reveal his own soul? What does it look like? In a smaller field, in an election cycle when the Democrats had poor prospects, Daschle would make an adequate--mostly liberal--standard-bearer/sacrificial lamb--much better than Bob Dole made for his party. On his own, though, what does Daschle offer--beyond a pleasant manner? What does he stand for and how does that separate him from the gaggle? That such a question needs to be asked is not an asset for him.

Obvious point. See Gephardt.

Less-than-obvious point: If Daschle is not the Democrats' leader in the Senate, why pay attention to him? His colleagues may not cotton to Daschle campaigning for president while his top priority (as their leader) is supposed to be getting them reelected. Senate Democrats already realize they will face a particularly difficult time in 2004. They want a leader who is attentive to their needs, not his own.

Dean. For all those millions of Democratic voters who still miss Bruce Babbitt--okay, dozens--Dean starts out as their man. Socially liberal, fiscally conservative, he is a stockbroker-turned-doctor-turned-politician. A Jimmy Carter of the North? He hopes so. He has been skeptical of what seems to be the coming war in Iraq. His signature issue is healthcare. In the Green Mountain State, he tried to pass comprehensive insurance coverage and flopped. He then succeeded with a plan that, in essence, made certain that all children in the state were covered. For policy wonks still nursing a post-Hillarycare hangover, he's the hair of the dog. But he left his state in the hands of a Republican governor. What went wrong?

Obvious point: Who?

Less-than-obvious point: Not a bad pick for veep. The Democrats need someone who can compete with the new Republican Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, when it comes to saving the lives of passers-by.

Sharpton. Many who recall the ugly Tawana Brawley incident of the late 1980s (and if you don't, consider yourself lucky) will have a tough time accepting Sharpton as a legitimate political voice. And he has steadfastly refused to apologize for his inflammatory role in that nasty episode, proclaiming his defiant stance evidence of his strength and commitment. There is also his reported stint as an FBI snitch in the 1980s. Does that count as previous government experience? (Sharpton denied he had been an informant.) But in recent years, Sharpton has recast himself as the Jesse Jackson stand-in--he hails Jackson as his "surrogate father"--in part by doing some heavy lifting on police brutality and racial profiling. Yet he has not followed the Jackson model in reaching out beyond his racial-issues base. He may develop the most straight-down-the-line progressive message of all the candidates, centered on an unflinching opposition to the war against Iraq. But can he revive the twin foundations of Jackson's influential candidacies of 1984 and 1988--coalitional progressive politics and a Southern strategy that nets delegates? An early guess: no. Weighed down by his own history, Sharpton has not yet demonstrated he can expand his vision. He has trimmed down but not reinvented himself nearly far enough.

Obvious point: I have a scheme. (Sorry, old biases die hard.)

Less-than-obvious point: If he does show an ability to attract significant support among African-American voters, will the white candidates court that bloc less?

And the other candidates? They have to dip more than a toe in the water to warrant a preliminary and sketchy assessment. It's explore-or-get-off-the-train time. The pith helmets are going fast.

The Fight for the Future of Music

America stands on the cusp of a sweeping set of shifts in federal media ownership rules that could dramatically alter the nature of what we see, hear and read, warns Federal Commications Commission member Jonathan S. Adelstein. Dialogue and debate about these proposed changes must be ramped up quickly if the public interest is to be protected.

But first, how about a harmonica solo?

Before delivering his first major policy address at the annual conference of the Future of Music Coalition, Adelstein wowed a crowd of several hundred there by playing a mean harmonica during a performance by Lester Chambers of the groundbreaking 1960s group The Chambers Brothers.

Adelstein, a Democrat whose appointment to the five-member FCC was recently approved, could not have chosen a better way to introduce himself to the musicians, journalists and advocates who crowded an ancient hall on Washington's Georgetown University campus. Appearing on a stage that had been occupied during this year's Future of Music Coalition conference by rock stars like Patti Smith and Living Color's Vernon Reid, jazz players such as Alfonzo Blackwell, producers like the legendary Sandy Pearlman and media personalities such as Ira Glass, host of the This American Life radio show, Adelstein knew he had to perform. And he got high marks for his able riffs during Chambers' performance of "People Get Ready."

But he got higher marks for his eyes-wide-open report on the devastating impact of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 on radio diversity. Before an audience filled with people who worry that the Congress or the FCC just don't get it, Adelstein came across as a commissioner who understands what is at stake when regulators allow media corporations to dominate whole communications systems.

"The 1996 Act entirely eliminated a cap on the number of radio stations a single company can own nationwide. It also relaxed local ownership limits, permitting a single owner to control up to eight stations in the nations' largest markets. As one might have predicted, the relaxation of these rules led inevitably to more stations in fewer hands," Adelstein said.

"According to one FCC report, in the six years since the adoption of the 1996 Act, the number of radio station owners in the United States declined by 34 percent, even though the number of commercial radio stations increased by 5.4 percent. The FCC found that the decline is primarily due to mergers between existing owners."

To illustrate the dramatic nature of the changes that have taken place, Adelstein noted that, "In 1996, the two largest radio group owners consisted of fewer than 65 radio stations. Six years later, the largest radio group owns about 1,200 radio stations. The second largest group owns about 250 stations. Their influence is even larger than their numbers suggest, because they are concentrated in the largest markets in the country."

Adelstein hailed a Future of Music Coalition report that showed how more and more programming on local radio stations is being done at the national level by media conglomerates rather than at the local level by hometown disc jockeys. "We must consider how consolidation affects all of you as artists," Adelstein told the crowd of several hundred recording artists and music industry players who attended the conference Monday. "Years ago, as a new artist, you might have gotten your first airplay on your local station – in a town where the DJ heard you at a local club the night before and wanted everyone in town to hear you, as well. As national groups buy out more local stations, that town may no longer have a local DJ at all."

"Consolidation," Adelstein warned, "often leads to the homogenization of programming. We must ask ourselves: At what point does consolidation come at the cost of the local expression that makes radio so unique and so special in this country? At what point does allowing consolidation undermine the public interest – and the quality of what we hear on the radio?"

The answer, according to many of the artists attending the conference, is that the point of impact has already been passed. "Because of radio consolidation and the emphasis of strict formats and constant cost cutting by media companies, musicians and fans of music are losing out," says musician Jenny Toomey, who serves as executive director of the Future of Music Coalition. "Consolidation has led to less diversity."

One member of Congress, US Senator Russ Feingold, has sought to address the negative impacts of the Telecommunications Act with legislation. The Wisconsin Democrat's Competition in Radio and Concert Industries Act seeks to address concerns about media monopolies, the loss of diversity and the return of old-fashioned payola scandals. But before Feingold's legislation even gets a hearing in Congress, the FCC could take steps that will lead to greater consolidation and conglomeration within media industries. At issue in coming months are proposals to ease rules that prevent a single television network from controlling stations that reach more than 35 percent of the national audience, as well as rules regarding the number of television and radio stations that one company could own in a single region. Another proposed rule change could allow one company to own a major daily newspaper and the major television and radio station in the same community.

FCC chair Michael Powell and at least two other FCC commissioners are believed to be sympathetic to demands by media corporations for further relaxation of ownership rules. But Adelstein continues to argue for caution, and he suggested that activism by musicians and music fans could yet change the character and the direction of the debate.

"Congress's relaxation of the rules on radio consolidation has been the canary in the mine, testing whether it is safe to go in before miners dare enter," Adelstein explained. "The miners in this case are all the consumers affected by FCC rules that govern the ownership of television, radio, cable and newspapers," he said. "The FCC better carefully consider the health of that canary before we proceed further, because changes to the FCC's media ownership rules potentially could alter the media landscape as much or more than the 1996 actions by Congress changed the radio industry."

Recalling a line from "People Get Ready" the song he played harmonica on a few minutes earlier Adelstein said: "Lester Chambers got it right: There's a big train a coming." And if musicians and music fans don't want the train to roll over them, Adelstein suggested, it's time to get active. "In order to insure that there continues to be a range of voices heard over the airwaves and through all of the media, we need to continue to hear you voices loud and clear before the FCC and throughout the government," Adelstein said. "So turn it up!"

Death Penalty Talking Points

While the death penalty is legal in most of the US, executions are increasingly taking place only in the South, according to the end-of-the-year report from the Death Penalty Information Center. In 2002, 86 percent of the nation's 71 executions took place in the South. Texas led the way as usual with 33 killings, and thereby "accounted for three times as many as the total in the West, Midwest and Northeast states combined, "the group said. See The Nation's http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030106&s=death "> Death Penalty Talking Points for numerous ways you can help register your voice against capital punishment in this country, including Death Row Roll Call , which makes it easy to blast off informed letters of protest on behalf of inmates scheduled to be executed each month.

'The Politics Were on the Street'

The punk rock explosion of the mid-1970s seized the power of rock-and-roll back from the corporate conglomerates that had warped the music into a flabby, over-produced, stadium-rocking mess.

But it was Joe Strummer who made punk rock more than just an anarchic flail against the dying of the light. With The Clash, Strummer gave punk a militant, internationalist, pro-Black edge that made it matter not just as a musical statement but as a political one.

"It was The Clash that struck the strong political stance that really inspired a lot of people, and within The Clash he was the political engine of the band," explained British singer Billy Bragg.

Strummer, who died Sunday from an apparent heart attack at age 50, was in on the ground floor of the punk moment. He saw a 1976 gig by the Sex Pistols and decided to start a band with Mick Jones and, after several personnel shifts, Paul Simonon and Topper Headon. By the summer of that year, The Clash was opening for the Pistols, and by the start of 1977 The Clash had a British hit with "White Riot." Even on that first single, Strummer displayed the sensibilities that would come to define The Clash's music: a reverence for radicalism, a faith in the power of direct action, an unyielding honesty and bluntness, a call to arms and a respect for rhythm that distinguished his band from most its contemporaries.

Written by Strummer and Jones at a time when British cities were experiencing a wave of urban riots, "White Riot" celebrated the revolt of Caribbean and African immigrants against the genteel racism of the British upper classes and asked why working-class whites didn't join the fight. ("Black people gotta lot a problems/But they don't mind throwing a brick/White people go to school/Where they teach you how to be thick...) The song's class consciousness ("All the power's in the hands/Of people rich enough to buy it...") was matched by a demand for activism that pushed punk in a new and some thought dangerous direction ("Are you taking over/or are you taking orders?/Are you going backwards/Or are you going forwards?").

The self-titled album that followed was so edgy that Columbia Records - the parent company of the band's British label - refused to release it in the United States.

Barely two years later, however, with the release of "London Calling," The Clash were suddenly being referred to by critics on both sides of the Atlantic as "The Only Band That Matters." For a few years there, it was hard to argue with the description. The Clash helped to define the punk and new wave movements as explicitly anti-racist -- working with ska and reggae bands to build the late-1970s Rock Against Racism movement in Britain.

Ultimately, however, the greatest political and cultural contributions made by Strummer and The Clash came in the form of the music. Fueled by Strummer's fascination with the world's music - born John Graham Mellor in Turkey, Strummer was the son of a British diplomat and spent much of his early life in Egypt, Mexico, Malawi and Iran - the band sampled widely from a diverse blend of musical styles.

Clash albums were infused with reggae, ska, funk and African rhythms, as well as with radical ideas about race, class and politics. Socialist, internationalist and angry, Strummer and The Clash started out by savaging British policies (especially those of a rising Tory politician named Margaret Thatcher) but they quickly found a bigger target in US foreign policy. The band's epic, three-album 1980 release, "Sandinista!" -- which was inspired by the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 -- was a fierce indictment of US policy in Latin American. One song, "Washington Bullets," recalled the US role in the overthrow of the elected government of Chilean President Salvador Allende: "As every cell in Chile will tell/The cries of the tortured men," Strummer growled. "Remember Allende, and the days before,/Before the army came/Please remember Victor Jara,/In the Santiago Stadium,/Es verdad - those Washington Bullets again."

Strummer took pains to emphasize that he was a musician first - more a fan of Mott the Hoople than Marx, he liked to say. Yet, Strummer argued, it was impossible to avoid the reality of economic, racial and social injustice: "The politics were on the street in front of us, man," he said, explaining that The Clash was forged in a moment when London was the home to refugees from Chile, as well as South Africans, Namibians and Zimbabweans who had fled white racist regimes in Africa

More than any other punk star, Strummer argued that the movement itself needed to be remembered as a radical break not just from increasingly pompous musical norms of the early 1970s but from a conservative mindset. "I will always believe in punk rock, because it's about creating something for yourself," he said in a July, 2002, interview. "Part of it was: 'Stop being a sap! Lift your head up and see what is really going on in the political, social and religious situations, and try to see through the smoke screens."

The Clash fell apart in the mid-1980s, after Strummer and Jones fell out. But the band's influence grew - to a point where, next March, it will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. For his part, Strummer retreated to rural England and slowly forged a solo career that ended up maintaining the values - both musical and political - of his best work with The Clash. His version of "Minstrel Boy" was a highlight of the "Black Hawk Down" movie soundtrack and the 2001 CD from Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, "Global Ago-Go" was a brilliant multicultural mix flavored with Strummer's best singing since his heyday with The Clash.

Strummer was working on a new Mescaleros release at the time of his death, along with a much-anticipated collaboration with U2's Bono and Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics titled "48864." That's the number Nelson Mandela bore while imprisoned on South Africa's Robben Island. The song was supposed to debut February 2, as part of a Robben Island benefit to help Mandela raise funds to fight AIDS in Africa.

Those who knew the man and his music were not at all surprised that Strummer's last project was every bit as militant and globally-focused as his remarkable career.

"The thing about Strummer was he walked it like he talked it," said Billy Bragg. "He didn't cop out."