On what was, undoubtedly, the most important day so far for his campaign for the presidency, John Edwards arranged to take time away from shaking hands with actual voters in the critical state of South Carolina to meet with a group of people who could not vote in that state, nor in any of the half dozen others that held primaries and caucuses on Tuesday.
Yet, the people with whom Edwards agreed to meet could hold the power to decide whether the North Carolina senator really will be able to mount a serious challenge to frontrunner John Kerry in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. They were the leaders of several of the industrial unions that backed the failed candidacy of Dick Gephardt. Though they could not deliver for the former House Minority Leader, who ran a weak fourth in the January 19 Iowa caucuses and then withdrew, the more than 20 unions that backed Gephardt are finding that the doors of the remaining Democratic contenders remain very much open to them.
For Edwards, who won South Carolina's primary and posted solid second-place finishes in several of the other states that voted Tuesday, support from just a few of those unions -- particularly the 1.4-million member International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the 700,000-member United Steelworkers of America union -- could provide him with the infrastructure he needs to compete in northern industrial states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Illinois. It is in these states that Edwards will in coming weeks be under pressure to nationalize what some analysts still dismiss as a southern regional campaign, and union backing could make all the difference.
"With the Teamsters and a few other unions pulling for him, Edwards might be able to secure some upsets and really emerge as the alternative to Kerry," said a veteran labor leader from the upper Midwest, who backs none of the candidates at this point. "But, without them, I don't see how Edwards can build the organization he needs to take this thing national."
The industrial unions like Edwards. To their view, he's got a significantly better record on the international trade issues that are so vital to union members who have seen hundreds of thousands of jobs eliminated, as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement and Permanent Most-Favored Nation Trading Status with China. Edwards has never been so passionate a critic of the corporate free-trade agenda as Gephardt, who helped organize Congressional opposition to NAFTA and the granting of "Fast Track" authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement, or Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio. But, as far as labor is concerned, Edwards has a far better record than Kerry, whose support for free trade agreements has been almost as consistent as that of Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, the corporate-friendly Democrat whose miserable showings in Tuesday's primaries and caucuses ended his presidential run.
Already, the Steelworkers union district that includes Michigan and Wisconsin has endorsed Edwards.
But most unions are holding off for now. The union leaders who met with the North Carolina senator Tuesday are expected to meet Thursday with Kerry, who has won seven of the nine primaries and caucuses held so far.
With Kerry emerging as the man to beat, unions that had backed Gephardt are cautious about going against him. They might prefer Edwards, but they will need a solid rational for doing so. There is real fear on the part of many labor leaders about backing two losers in the same nomination fight.
Some unions have already jumped to Kerry. Even before his breakthrough wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, the Massachusetts senator always had the backing of the 260,000-member International Fire Fighters Association and the 50,000-member Utility Workers Union of the America. And as his campaign has picked up steam, he has received endorsements from the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America union, the 150,000-member Sheet Metal Workers International Association and the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 workers in 29 government agencies. He has also gained the backing of the 27,000-member United Farm Workers union, which maintains influence beyond its numbers in Latino communities. And he is expected to secure the support of the 1.2-million member American Federation of Teachers union before the end of the week.
Kerry has also earned backing from a number of powerful union groupings in Michigan, where caucuses will be held Saturday. The 157,000-member Michigan Education Association is for him, as are United Auto Workers union Region 1D, the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and the West Michigan Building Trades Association.
Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who hopes to renew his campaign with a strong showing in Michigan, says, "The Michigan Education Association has endorsed Senator Kerry, but I think I'll get the vast majority of teachers' votes."
Dean had better hope he's right. He needs strong showings in Michigan and Washington state, which also holds caucuses on Saturday, as well as Wisconsin, which will hold what is shaping up as a critical primary on February 17. Dean's still has the backing of two of the largest unions in the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. But the former frontrunner is under pressure to deliver some wins soon. Both unions have spent in the range of $1 million to aid Dean who, so far, has been beaten in nine primaries and caucuses.
Dean will be called to explain his strategy for renewing his campaign in meetings later this week with leaders of AFSCME and SEIU, as well as another union that endorsed him when his campaign was on the rise, the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades. "Obviously, people are nervous. Obviously, they'd rather be in a different situation strategically," says Bob Muehlenkamp, the former Teamsters union organizing director who has been helping Dean line up labor support. "Obviously, people have doubts and hesitations when you're not winning elections and getting votes."
SEIU President Andy Stern says his union is committed to back Dean through Wisconsin's February 17 primary. "As Dr. Dean has said, he wants to win, he's not there to be a protest candidate," says Stern. "At some point he's going to have to decide if he's getting enough delegates and does he have the strategy to win."
The investigation will be "thorough and swift," Powell said yesterday. "Our nation's children, parents and citizens deserve better." That would be Michael--not Colin--Powell and this is not about that investigation into those pesky missing WMDs; it's that high-level probe into who knew what and when about how Janet Jackson's breast--adorned with a silver "nipple guard"--was exposed by pop idol Justin Timberlake before millions of upstanding Americans during the Super Bowl half-time show.
Surfing Tuesday's morning shows, I blearily counted more time devoted to heated discussion about what Timberlake called a "wardrobe malfunction" than to debate about the Administration's hyping and cherry-picking (excuse the word) of intelligence in order to mislead a nation into war.
But, I'm not shocked that our TV culture cares more for weapons of mass distraction. Nor am I shocked at Michael Powell's "shock." As executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy Jeff Chester points out, Powell is trying to distract the public and press from the impact of his decision last June changing the media rules and making CBS, among others, far more powerful. Powell's rule changes have done more than anything to support the "rude-lewd" business model of the big networks, a fact he's hoping his investigation will obscure.
And, let's not forget, as Chester reminds us, that CBS is now lobbying the Bush White House and the GOP leadership for more favors after the Administraton leaned on Congress to cut a special deal two weeks ago on TV ownership, allowing Viacom and Fox to keep extra stations over the previously-legal limit.
How about an FCC investigation into that kind of indecency?
Moments after the polls closed in New Hampshire on January 27, Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie declared that President Bush had won 94 percent of the Republican primary vote. It was a dramatic claim. Unfortunately for Gillespie, it was dramatically inaccurate.
When the Associated Press posted the unofficial returns from the GOP primary, it reported that Bush had won a little less than 86 percent of the vote. The fact that almost one out of every seven New Hampshire voters who took Republican ballots had apparently cast them for someone other than the party's incumbent president drew little note in major media accounts, but it was intriguing enough to merit mention in this column ("Bush Slips -- Among Republicans," Online Beat, 1-20-2004).
As it turns out, however, the unofficial tally by Associated Press significantly underestimated the collapse in the president's fortunes. According to updated figures from the New Hampshire Secretary of State's office, which only today posted a final figure on the total number of ballots cast, only 78 percent of New Hampshire voters who took Republican ballots marked them for Bush. (In one New Hampshire town, Milton, Bush received only 48 percent of the vote, while in a number of others he was held below 60 percent of the vote.)
The figures on the New Hampshire Secretary of State's office website (http://www.state.nh.us/sos/electionsnew.htm) show than 69,379 New Hampshire voters cast regular and absentee ballots in the Republican primary. Just 53,962 voted for Bush (78 percent). More than one in five Republican primary voters, 22--percent--chose not to vote for Bush.
Where did the renegade Republican votes go? While roughly ten percent of Republican primary voters statewide backed little-known Republicans whose names appeared on the ballot or simply did not vote, a remarkable 8,288 (12 percent) wrote in the names of leading Democratic presidential contenders.
The Democrat who won the most Republican primary votes was Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who got 3,009 write-in votes, for 4.3 percent of the Republican primary total. Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean received 1,888 write-in votes for 2.7 percent. Retired General Wesley Clark got 1,467 Republican write-ins for 2.1 percent.
By contrast, Bush received only 257 write-in votes in the Democratic primary, where a total of 220,053 ballots were cast.
How does the level of support for Bush in this year's Republican primary compare with past primaries in which a supposedly popular president faced no serious opposition? Not well. In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower won 98.9 percent of the Republican primary vote, according to the New Hampshire Political Library. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson won 95.3 percent of the Democratic primary vote. And in 1984 and 1996, Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic President Bill Clinton both secured around 85 percent of the vote in their respective party primaries.
Considering President Bush's less-than-stellar showing in New Hampshire, it should come as little surprise that Republicans in some states have decided to cancel their primaries. In South Carolina, for instance, the state Republican Party's executive committee decided not to hold their state's tradition first-in-the-south primary. They simply endorsed Bush for reelection and agreed to select delegates at district and state Republican Party conventions where, presumably, the president will not have to run the risk of embarrassment at the hands of independent thinking voters.
(Online Beat thanks to a sharp reader, Joe Loy, who alerted us to the shifting New Hampshire Republican primary figures. Thanks also to Paula Penney, an administrative assistant in the New Hampshire Secretary of State's office, who explained that it takes time to get a final count because a lot of New Hampshire votes are still cast on traditional paper ballots. Penney says the results that are now posted should be the last official word on what New Hampshire voters think of Bush--until November.)
What if we lived in a parallel universe where Howard Dean was actually treated fairly by the media?
I don't mean some Deaniac bizarro world where the former Vermont governor's "I Have a Scream" speech in Iowa would be treated as world-class oratory, or where it would go unmentioned that his campaign is essentially broke. I mean a place where Dean would be treated like the other candidates--criticized for his mistakes, complimented for his accomplishments and, above all, treated seriously when he discusses issues.
How would a Dean candidacy be fairing today if the press gushed over him as it does John Edwards, or forgave him his trespasses as quickly as it does John Kerry, or overlooked the disorder in his organization as casually as it does the daily disaster that is Joe Lieberman's so-called campaign?
The answer, of course, is "better."
Dean has made mistakes, to be sure. But those mistakes have been amplified by a 24-hour-a-day news cycle, by late-night comics, by an Anybody-But-Dean army of cable television and talk-radio talking heads, and by Washington-centric newspaper columnists who never understood or particularly approved of Dean's decision to show up uninvited at the top of Democratic polls in late 2003.It wasn't just cable commentators and comics that gave Dean a hard time, however. According to the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs, Dean was the favorite target of the evening news programs on the nation's broadcast networks. The center's study of 187 CBS, NBC and ABC evening news reports found that only 49 percent of all on-air evaluations of Dean in 2003 were positive. The other Democratic contenders collectively received 78 percent favorable coverage during the same period.
The battering Dean took from the media actually strengthened him at first. Grassroots Democrats, like most Americans, are angry with media that did not have the courage--or the basic journalistic skills--to expose George Bush's lies about weapons of mass destruction and tax cuts for the rich before Americans started losing their lives in Iraq and their jobs in the heartland. For a time, the jabs he took from the media bounced off Dean as easily as did the attacks from the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council and other fronts for the Republican-lite wing of the party.
But, eventually, the hits began to take their toll. Despite the fact that Dean is actually better on his feet now than at any time since he announced his candidacy, he is greeted with skepticism even by Democrats who admit that they like his message. Traveling with Dean in South Carolina this week, I saw him earn thunderous applause from voters who said they appreciated his antiwar, anti-establishment message. When I asked if they would support him, however, these same Democrats quietly admitted they would probably vote for Kerry or Edwards--candidates who just weeks ago were dismissed as losers but are now regularly referred to as "electable" by the media pack.
It is true that every disintegrating presidential candidacy since that of John Adams in 1800 has blamed the media for its decline. But, in this case, Dean's complaints appear to be more credible than those of most damaged contenders.
How do we know?
Consider one place on the campaign trail where Dean did receive good press--or, at least, fair press--right up to the time when ballots began to be cast. That place is southwest New Hampshire, a region that still gets a lot of its news from a feisty independent daily newspaper called the Keene Sentinel. I know the Sentinel reasonably well because I wrote some for it during the 1984 New Hampshire primary season, and I have always kept up with its coverage of candidates and campaigns.
Since 1799, the Sentinel has been synonymous with news in what is known as the Monadnock Region of New Hampshire. The newspaper has a long history of taking politics seriously, and it still does. All the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination campaigned aggressively in southwest New Hampshire--which borders Dean's Vermont and Kerry's Massachusetts--and all of them earned front-page coverage of their statements and stands in the Sentinel.
So the Monadnock Region was treated to some of the most thorough coverage of the campaign in the country. And that coverage was not filtered through a "news center" in Washington or New York or Atlanta.
Thus, when it came time for the Sentinel to make an endorsement, the editors looked over their own coverage and came to a conclusion: Dean was not the screaming hothead portrayed on cable TV. Rather, they saw a sensible and appealing candidate, and they backed him, writing that, "Dean offers voters a wide range of well-thought-out policy initiatives, foreign and domestic, based on a dramatic--and one might say conservative--theme: I want my country back. That cry, coupled with Dean's direct, energetic style, appeals to a lot of Democrats and independents, and has attracted a large number of people to his campaign who had previously been alienated from politics of any kind. Dean is particularly effective in his open refusal to entice voters with wild promises of expensive new government programs...
"We come to this decision not without some difficulty, given the appeal of the (retired General) Clark and (US Senator John) Edwards candidacies. But we believe on balance that Dean is best-equipped to restore respect for this country abroad while protecting the interests of Americans at home. And we believe Dean, unlike the current occupant of the White House, understands that the two efforts must be linked. All nations reserve the right to act boldly in their own interests, but no nation--even our own exceptional nation--can thrive as a go-it-alone force on virtually every matter of international substance: energy, the environment, trade, war and peace. Dean has reasonable and we believe workable ideas for addressing Americans' needs regarding health care, the federal deficit, homeland security, jobs, civil rights and the economy. And he would reverse the current administration's shameless weakening of environmental laws.
"No one will accuse Howard Dean of being soft on anything--that's hardly his style. But in the long run, tough policies are most effective when they are also smart policies. We observed Dean through a long career as governor of Vermont accomplishing a great deal by combining diligence with intelligence. Along the way, he usually won the respect not only of his allies, but of many of his adversaries as well. If he can bring that vitality and that sensitivity to the national stage, he and we might well get our country back."
The Sentinel wasn't the only thing Dean had going for him in southwest New Hampshire. But the steady and responsible coverage the region's dominant newspaper accorded him, along with its endorsement, appear to have had at least some impact.
Last Tuesday, Kerry won New Hampshire by a margin of 39 percent to 26 percent for Dean. Dean, who had been leading in just about every New Hampshire region, according to polls taken late in 2003, saw his support slip dramatically in most places. But the former Vermont governor carried southwest New Hampshire, winning 6,639 votes to 6,070 for Kerry. Of 31 towns in the Monadnock Region, John Kerry won just 11, while Howard Dean took 20.
President Bush recently invited Latino immigration activists and the press to the White House to hear him unveil an important policy initiative. The President said that US immigration policy "is not working" and proposed an ambitious new approach he said would better "reflect the American Dream."
But, following the President's speech, John Alger, an agricultural employer in Homestead, Florida, told USA Today that he welcomed the initiative, saying, "To have a sustainable, low-cost labor force is crucial to us."
So, what's this new proposal about? Shoring up the American Dream? Or ensuring a low-wage labor pool for commercial interests?
For a terrific explanation, check out a recent statement issued by the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW), which calls the guestworker proposal "damaging to the very people it purports to help," and argues that the initiative is designed to "give US industry legal, taxpayer-assisted access to millions of desperately poor workers outside US borders." Click here to read and circulate this valuable report.
The CIW is a community-based worker organization composed largely of Latino, Haitian, and Mayan Indian immigrants laboring in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida. Established in 1977 to advocate for tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida's largest farming community, the CIW's main activity currently is coordinating activities to improve working conditions and to raise these workers' pay.
But, despite signature drives, work stoppages, a 230-mile march across South Florida, and a 30-day hunger strike by six coalition members, the growers still refuse to meet with worker representatives. (Why should they when they've been able to keep wages stagnant since the 1970s?)
In late 2001, the CIW launched a national boycott against Taco Bell, one of the largest buyers of tomatoes in the region and, together with Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver's, and A&W Restaurants, part of a corporate group forming the "world's largest restaurant system."
Farm-workers who pick for Florida growers like Six L's Packing Company, Taco Bell's chief supplier, earn roughly forty cents for every thirty-two pound bucket of tomatoes--the same piece rate paid in 1978. At this rate, workers must pick and haul two TONS of tomatoes, a tough task, to make fifty dollars a day.
Workers are denied the right to organize and the right to overtime pay. They receive no health insurance, no sick leave, no paid holidays, no vacation, and no pension. Given the sheer volume of Immokalee tomatoes it buys, not to mention its size and economic strength, Taco Bell has the power to help bring about more modern, more equitable labor relations in Immokalee's tomato fields.
To date, the company has refused to take any responsibility whatsoever for the sweatshop conditions in the fields where its tomatoes are picked. Taco Bell executives have even refused to speak to delegations of workers who have requested meetings.
But, according to critics, Taco Bell could nearly double the picking piece rate paid to farm-workers by agreeing to pay just one penny more per pound for the tomatoes it buys from Florida growers. As CIW says: "We believe that Taco Bell, as part of the 'world's largest restaurant system' can easily afford to pay one penny more. But even if they passed the cost on to YOU, the consumer, it would still be less than 1/4 of 1 cent more for your chalupa." Not a bad deal.
Until Taco Bell and its local growers are forced to concede, the CIW's excellent website makes it easy for you to help. First, get informed. CIW offers a concise explanation of the boycott, and the CIW Listserve keeps you in touch with the campaign as it evolves.
Then, if you're interested in bringing the Taco Bell boycott to your community, contact the Student/Farm-Worker Alliance or the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for more information and materials that you can use for organizing in your area, including media packets, postcards, flyers, bumper-stickers and other resources.
If you're fed up with First Ladies being pigeonholed into thetraditional Laura or careerist Hillary box (or, as Timothy Noah in Slate put it, the "victim" or "bitch" box), check out Katha Pollitt's sassy, smart and scathing look at media coverage of Judy Dean Steinberg.
After that--if you're not fed up with all the attention paid to the candidates' wives--check out the Washington Post's Outlook section this Sunday. I'm contributing to a forum (along with Wendy Wasserstein, Danielle Crittenden, Kati Marton and the First Gentleman of Michigan, Dan Mulhern) exploring America's attitudes toward First Ladies. Are we ready for one who would shun the traditional aspects of the role? I think so.
And on Sunday morning, I'm going to mix it up with Howard Kurtz, David Frum and Newsweek's Evan Thomas on CNN's Reliable Sources.
Topics: Kerry coverage; Dean's relations with the media (by the way, he's on for the full hour on Meet the Press this Sunday); and a question I debated last year, around this time, on Kurtz's show: Could the media have done a better job reporting how the Bush Administration misled us into war? You bet.
FOR UPDATED FIGURES FROM NEW HAMPSHIRE'S REPUBLICAN PRIMARY, SEE "BUSH SLIPS-EVEN FURTHER" at: http://www.thenation.com/thebeat
The record-high turnout in the New Hampshire Democratic primary -- 219,787 Granite State voters took Democratic ballots Tuesday, shattering the previous record of 170,000 in 1992 -- is being read as a signal that voters in one New England state, and most likely elsewhere, are enthusiastic about the prospect of picking a challenger for George W. Bush. And the turnout in the Democratic primary is not even the best indicator of the anti-Bush fervor in New Hampshire, a state that in 2000 gave four critical electoral votes to the man who secured the presidency by a razor-thin Electoral College margin of 271-267.
Many New Hampshire primary participants decided to skip the formalities and simply vote against the president in Tuesday's Republican primary. Thousands of these Bush-bashing Republicans went so far as to write in the names of Democratic presidential contenders.
Under New Hampshire law, only Democrats and independents were permitted to participate in Tuesday's Democratic presidential primary. That meant that Republicans who wanted to register their opposition to Bush had to do so in their own party's primary. A remarkable number of them did just that.
One in seven Republican primary voters cast ballots for candidates other than Bush, holding the president to just 85 percent of the 62,927 ballots cast. In some parts of the state, such as southwest New Hampshire's Monadnock Region, a historic bastion of moderate Republicanism, Bush did even worse. In Swanzey, for instance, 37 percent of GOP primary voters rejected Bush. In nearby Surry, almost 29 percent of the people who took Republican ballots voted against the Republican president, while a number of other towns across the region saw anti-Bush votes of more than 20 percent in the GOP primary.
Few of the anti-Bush votes went to the 13 unknown Republicans whose names appeared on GOP ballots along with the president's. Instead, top Democratic contenders reaped write-in votes.
US Senator John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, who won the Democratic primary, came in second to Bush in the Republican contest, winning 3,009 votes. Kerry's name was written in on almost 5 percent of all GOP ballots. Who were these Republican renegades for Kerry? People like 61-year-old retired teacher David Anderson. A Vietnam veteran, Anderson told New Hampshire's Concord Monitor that he wrote in Kerry's name because the senator, also a veteran, understands the folly of carrying on a failed war. "I feel a commander, the president of the United States, ought to be a veteran," explained Anderson, who says his top priority is getting US troops out of Iraq.
Kerry wasn't the only Democrat who appealed to Republicans. In third place on the Republican side of the ledger was former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who won 1,888 votes, more than 3 percent of the GOP total. Retired General Wesley Clark secured 1,467 Republican votes, while almost 2,000 additional Republican primary votes were cast for North Carolina Senator John Edwards, Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
In all, 8,279 primary voters wrote in the names of Democratic challengers to Bush on their Republican ballots.
That's a significant number. In the 2000 general election, Bush beat Democrat Al Gore in New Hampshire by just 7,212 votes. Had Gore won New Hampshire, he would have become president, regardless of how the disputed Florida recount was resolved.
The prospect that Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters in New Hampshire, and nationally, might be developing doubts about whether Bush should be reelected is the ultimate nightmare for the Bush political team. White House political czar Karl Rove begins his calculations with an assumption that Republicans will be united in their support of the president's reelection. But the president's deficit-heavy fiscal policies, his support for free-trade initiatives that have undermined the country's manufacturing sector, and growing doubts about this Administration's military adventurism abroad appear to have irked not just Democrats and independents, but also a growing number of Republicans.
The Bush White House is taking this slippage seriously. US Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, who beat Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire Republican primary, was dispatched to the Granite State before Tuesday's primary, in order to pump up the president's prospects, as were Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and New York Governor George Pataki. And Bush, himself, jetted into the state on Thursday, effectively acknowledging that state Republican Party chair Jane Millerick was right when she said, "What we have recognized is that New Hampshire is a swing state."
But can the president pull independent-minded Republicans, and Republican-minded independents, back to him? That task could prove to be tougher than the job of finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
No one doubts that Democrats in New Hampshire, and elsewhere, are angry with the president. Indeed, if there was one message that has come through loud and clear during the first stages of the race for the Democratic nomination, it was that Democrats in the first-in-the-nation primary state -- like their peers in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa -- have proven to be less interested in ideological distinctions between Democratic contenders than they are in picking a candidate who will beat Bush.
Exit polls conducted on Tuesday in New Hampshire did not merely sample the opinions of Democrats. They also questioned independent voters, who make up almost 40 percent of the New Hampshire electorate. A Democratic primary exit poll conducted for Associated Press and various television networks found that nine in ten independents were worried about the direction of the US economy. Eight in ten told the pollsters that some or all of the tax cuts pushed by the Bush administration should be canceled. Forty percent of the independents questioned in the poll said they were angry with Bush, while another 40 percent said they were simply dissatisfied with the president.
Bush aides are quick to dismiss the polling numbers.
But how will they dismiss the results of the New Hampshire Republican primary, where every seventh voter cast a ballot for anyone-but-Bush?
I don't tend to endorse candidates. I'll leave that to Michael Moore. But I do feel like dis-endorsing a presidential candidate: Howard Dean.
This has nothing to do with the former Vermont governor's loss to Senator John Kerry in the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary. It has to do with Dean's decision to fire Joe Trippi, his campaign manager, and hand control to Roy Neel.
I am not defending Trippi. I happen to like him and thought he did a marvelous job using the new tools of the Internet to turn a little-known governor into both a top-tier presidential candidate and the leader of what appeared to be a movement of reform-minded citizens who wanted to bring public-interest democracy to Washington. But the relationship between candidate and consultant is akin to a marriage; it is hard for outsiders to know truly what goes on between the two. Perhaps Trippi and Dean had disagreements over the direction of the campaign. Maybe Trippi shortchanged the organizational needs of the campaign or failed to manage its growth effectively. Did Dean object to Trippi showing up for television interviews looking bedraggled? Dean might be searching for a scapegoat, and there's an old saying in politics, "you can't fire the candidate." And here's a new one: a scream once screamed cannot be unscreamed.
So it's Dean's right to boot Trippi. What warrants criticism is his decision to put his campaign in the mitts of a Washington insider. Neel, a former Al Gore aide, was head of the U.S. Telecom Association in Washington in the late 1990s until he left to join Gore's 2000 campaign. The USTA lobbies on behalf of the telecommunications industry. As its lead lobbyist, Neel was the embodiment of the "special interests" that Dean has assailed on the campaign trail.
For much of the past week, I listened to Dean repeatedly bemoan the influence of corporate lobbyists as he crisscrossed New Hampshire. A sampling:
* "All the things that happen in Washington happen for the benefit of corporations and special interests."
* "This government is run by a president who cares more about corporations than he does about ordinary Americans, and that is why I'm running."
* "The ordinary people in this country are supposed to be running it."
* "There are no special interests in Washington who can buy us."
No, we only let them oversee our campaigns.
Since entering the race, Dean has insistently said, "we have to take our country back" from the special interests. The slogan on his bus reads, "You Have The Power." He has decried the hold that business interests have on the federal government. Well, what does he think Neel did when he ran the telecom lobby? Did Neel go up to Capitol Hill--or send his underlings--to beseech legislators to pass legislation with consumers foremost in mind? Did he use his connections with the Clinton-Gore administration to help out consumer advocates trying to protect the rights of "ordinary Americans" as Congress and regulatory agencies handled telecom issues? Is maple syrup good for your teeth?
Neel was part of Washington's insider network--which does not look out for the people Dean claims he wants to empower. In 1999 and 2000, the USTA spent $3.5 million to lobby Congress, according to lobbying reports it filed. (The association probably spent more; not all lobbying activity is reported.) To help the telecoms, Neel recruited other influence peddlers in town, including the lobbying firm of Haley Barbour, who then chaired the Republican National Committee. Other Barbour clients: British American Tobacco, the Edison Electric Institute, Glaxo Wellcome, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Philip Morris. Neel's outfit also retained Wallman Strategic Consulting, which represented General Motors and WorldCom.
To increase the odds that members of Congress would heed the pleas of telecom companies, the U.S. Telecom Association, through its political action committee, donated generously to incumbent legislators. In the 1998 and 2000 election cycles, it doled out $266,000 to members of the House and Senator. Nearly 80 percent of that went to Republicans. GOPers helped by this PAC included Representatives Dick Armey, Bob Barr, Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert and Henry Hyde and Senators John Ashcroft, Sam Brownback, Bill Frist, Orrin Hatch and Trent Lott.
It really seems that Neel was committed to bringing change to Washington.
Neel might well be a fine person, a good CEO, a believer (on his own time) in the values of the Democratic Party. But he was a bigtime player in the very game that Dean claims he wants to destroy. Dean's choice of Neel suggests Dean is clueless or disingenuous. Does he not know what it means to head the U.S. Telecom Association? Does he not understand that it is wrong--or, at the least, ill-considered--to place a lobbyist at the front of a charge on Washington? Was he not worried that this action would cause his opponents, the media and--most importantly--his devoted supporters to question his sincerity and his judgment?
There has always been a disconnect in the Dean campaign between the man and the movement. If two years ago someone cooked up the idea to create a progressive, reform-minded grassroots crusade that would focus on harnessing "people power" to confront Washington's money-and-power culture and a leader for such an effort was needed, Dean's name would not have jumped to mind. Senator Paul Wellstone maybe, not Dean. Yet thousands of Americans were yearning for such an endeavor, and Dean found a way to tap into their desires. It was not the most natural or conventional of couplings, but it happened. And he was propelled to the front of the presidential pack.
Is Dean filing for divorce? By turning toward Neel to save his campaign, Dean is not breaking new ground in American politics, for presidential candidates have long enlisted K Street lobbyists to aid their campaigns. Gore brought in Tony Coehlo, a well-connected lobbyist and former House member, to skipper his 2000 campaign when it hit trouble. And it would be no surprise to find special interests lobbyists on the payroll of Senators John Kerry or John Edwards. Retired General Wesley Clark was a lobbyist himself before entering the contest. But by adhering to this tradition, Dean has signaled that he is not fully committed to his core message--unless he wants to argue that it takes a thief to catch a thief. But does he really believe it takes a corporate lobbyist to "take back America" from the corporate lobbyists? Let him explain that in one of the e-mails he regularly sends his thousands of followers. They trusted Dean, and there is nothing wrong with hope. But as Dean fans deal with the disappointment of New Hampshire, he has delivered them more bad news to process. Looking at the Neel move--a scream of a different sort--it would not be unreasonable for any Deaniac who embraced this campaign as a reform movement to say, Stick a fork in it; it's done.
SEE DAVID CORN'S Ten Talking Points on the New Hampshire Results
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CBS officials are still refusing to air a MoveOn.org Voter Fund commercial during Sunday's Super Bowl game because that the 30-second advertisement criticizes President Bush's fiscal policies. There is no question that the network's determination to censor critics of the president damages the political discourse. But the network has not exactly silenced dissent. In fact, CBS's heavy-handed tactics are fueling an outpouring of grassroots anger over the dominance of communications in the United States by a handful of large media corporations. More than 400,000 Americans have contacted CBS to complain already, and the numbers are mounting hourly.
At the same time, the controversy surrounding the censorship of the MoveOn ad has heightened Congressional concern about lobbying by CBS's owner, Viacom, and other media conglomerates to lift limits on media consolidation and monopoly. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, says CBS should be seen as: "Exhibit A in the case against media concentration."
"The CBS Eye has been closed to the truth and to fairness," he said. "CBS has a great, great legacy. It is a storied name when it comes to public information in America. This chapter is sad and disgraceful," argues Durbin, who took to the floor of the Senate to express his concern that CBS was censoring the ad as a favor to the White House that has aggressively supported removing restrictions on the number of local television stations that can be owned by the network's parent company, Viacom.
CBS officials deny they are censoring the MoveOn ad as part of a political quid pro quo deal with a White House that has been friendly to the network's lobbying agenda. But U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, the leading Congressional critic of moves by the Federal Communications Commission to allow the "Big Four" networks to dramatically increase their ownership of local TV stations, says that the censorship of the MoveOn ad highlights the potential for abuse of the public trust by media corporations that grow large enough – and arrogant enough -- to constrict the political discourse at both the local and national levels.
"Denying MoveOn's 30 second spot about the federal budget deficit seems a thinly veiled political decision," explains Sanders. "I hope that Viacom's move is not in any way payback to the Bush Administration for its ongoing efforts to loosen federal rules to allow large companies like Viacom to own a larger and larger share of the media in this country. I hope it's not but the timing of CBS' censorship is troubling. Regardless, this seems to be the latest example of how concentrated power in the media system harms the public interest."
With US Representatives Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois and Maurice Hinchey. D-New York, Sanders penned a letter to CBS President and CEO Les Moonves, which rebukes the network for refusing to sell air time to MoveOn. More than two dozen members of the House have signed on to the letter, which reads:
"We are writing to express our concerns about the decision of Viacom's CBS television network to deny MoveOn.org paid airtime during this year's Super Bowl. We believe this action sends a negative message to the American people about your network's commitment to preserving our democratic debate. Censoring this ad is an affront to free speech and an obstruction of the public's right to hear a diversity of voices over the public airwaves.
"CBS has said that the ad violated the network's policy against running issue advocacy advertising. However, the network has run a White House issue advocacy spot on the consequences of drug use during a past Super Bowl. CBS also will air a spot by Philip Morris USA and the American Legacy Foundation advocating against smoking during this year's Super Bowl. Additionally, the network profits enormously from the thousands of issue ads which air on CBS stations nationwide during election campaigns year after year. Because of these facts, we must call into question why CBS refuses the advertisement by MoveOn.org.
"Issue ads are commonplace and important for democratic debate. Yet, CBS seems to want to limit that debate to ads that are not critical of the political status quo, and in the case of the MoveOn ad, of the President and by extension the Republican-controlled Congress. Apparently, CBS feels that the topic covered in this paid advertisement--the federal government's budget crisis--is inappropriate or irrelevant for American viewers, despite being one of the most critical issues of our day.
"The choice not to run this paid advertisement appears to be part of a disturbing pattern on CBS's part to bow to the wishes of the Republican National Committee. We remember well CBS's remarkable decision this fall to self-censor at the direction of GOP pressure. The network shamefully cancelled a broadcast about former President Ronald Reagan which Republican partisans considered insufficiently flattering.
"Perhaps not coincidently, CBS's decision to censor the Reagan program and to deny airtime to this commercial comes at a time when the White House and the Republican Congress are pushing to allow even greater and greater media concentration - a development from which Viacom stands to benefit handsomely. The appearance of a conflict is hard to ignore. There may not be a fire here, but there certainly is a great deal of smoke.
"As Members of Congress, it is our responsibility to point out the negative direction in which we see CBS heading. You have been entrusted by the American people as stewards of the public airwaves. We ask that you not violate that trust and that you not censor this ad."
In addition to Sanders, Schakowsky and Hinchey, signers of the letter include Representatives Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio; Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; George Miller, D-California; Bob Filner, D-California; Diane Watson, D-California; Barbara Lee, D-California; Lynn Woolsey, D-California; Pete Stark, D-California; Sam Farr, D-California; Jerry Nadler, D-New York; Louise Slaughter, D-New York; Jose Serrano, D-New York; Major Owens, D-New York; Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon; Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin; Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona; Jay Inslee, D-Washington; Brian Baird, D-Washington; John Olver, D-Massachusetts; Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi; Robert Wexler, D-Florida and Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Illinois.
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, a Democratic presidential contender, also signed the letter.
At the end of December, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman ticked off a few pet peeves and proposals regarding the media's campaign coverage.
*Don't talk about clothes
*Beware of personal anecdotes
*Don't fall for political histrionics
*Actually look at the candidates' policy proposals.
As we leave New Hampshire, campaign coverage seems to be sixty percent horse race, thirty percent analysis of style and rhetoric, and ten percent coverage of issues. Sure, the volatile fluidity of the Democratic primary lends itself to Racing News-style coverage, but what about some rigorous reporting on pesky issues and policy proposals?
For savvy political consumers who want a quick survey of where the candidates stand on the central issues affecting America's middle class--the cost of housing education, childcare, and healthcare; unemployment; the minimum wage; the right to organize; credit card debt; bankruptcy--check out the Drum Major Institute's (DMI) valuable survey, "The Myth of the Middle? Campaign 2004 on America's Middle Class."
Over the last few months the New York-based non-partisan, non-profit organization sent questionnaires to all the campaigns, in an effort, as Institute President (and former Bronx borough president) Freddie Ferrer says, "to get rid of rhetoric and begin a true discussion on the concerns relating to America's struggling middle class."
In surveying the candidates, DMI "intends to help Americans form an opinion about where the Presidential contenders stand on protecting the middle class and restoring the mobility of poor and working families who want to earn their way into the middle class."
Some of the report's key findings:
*Most candidates agree that the main challenges facing the middle class are falling incomes and job security, affordable health care, and the rising cost of higher education.
*The candidates disagree on their approaches to expanding access to health care, on support of a National Usury Law to limit credit card companies' interest charges, on an increase in the minimum wage with annual adjustments for inflation, and on their plans to restructure the tax code to best meet the needs of middle class families.
*General Clark refused to commit support for increasing federal regulation of the credit card industry, Howard Dean wouldn't commit to increasing the ceiling for eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit, and Joe Lieberman didn't take a stand on increasing the minimum wage.
*All of the candidates supported the expansion of eligibility for unemployment insurance, making college tuition tax-deductible, and the Employee Free Choice Act, which allows a union to be certified if a majority of employees have signed authorization cards.
*When asked what each candidate had already done to improve the lives of the middle class, responses ranged from Clark's efforts to improve the quality of military housing for soldiers under his command, to Dr. Dean's creation of 56,000 new jobs as Governor of Vermont, to Senator Kerry's defense of Medicare and Social Security during the Newt Gingrich years.
In contrast, Bush's GOP has steadfastly refused to raise the minimum wage (stuck at $5.15 since 1997), has forestalled all proposals to address the dramatically increasing healthcare costs borne by the middle class, and has effectively eliminated overtime pay for some eight million American workers.
As Rep. Bernie Sanders wrote recently in a powerful piece for The Progressive titled " We Are the Majority," currently, "40 percent of American workers are working fifty hours a week or more...The scandal of our time is that with all the explosion of technology and productivity the average American is not working fewer hours and making more money. We are not down to a thirty-hour week. The middle class is not expanding, and poverty has not been eliminated. On the contrary, it has increased."
Fortunately, groups like DMI are around to inform Americans of policies which counter the GOP's ruthless war against the middle class. Click here to help spread word of DMI's valuable new report.