The Nation

Shame on Obama and Clinton for Skipping Peru Trade Vote

New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama desperately want Democrats to believe that they are serious about serving the American people as the next president of the United States.

But the party faithful – along with the independent and even Republican voters who may be asked to consider these contenders – would be well advised to distrust any claim of conscientiousness from this pair.

Clinton and Obama -- along with fellow Democrats Joe Biden, of Delaware, and Chris Dodd, of Connecticut, and Republican John McCain, of Arizona -- are not even serious about serving in their current positions as members of the U.S. Senate.

When the Senate voted Tuesday of the Peru Trade Agreement, a critical test of U.S. economic policy that raised fundamental questions with regard to how this country will frame its economic ties to hemispheric neighbors, the five senators who would be president were the only members of the chamber who missed the vote.

If we are to trust their statements with regard to the issue: Biden and Dodd would have voted against the Peru deal, while Obama and Clinton would have supported it.

But senators who don't bother to show up get the out of being able to rewrite history – including their own statements. And that appears to be more important to Clinton, Obama and their fellow senator-candidates than doing the job to which they were elected.

Would the presence of Obama, Clinton or the other contenders have changed the practical result of the vote? No. The Senate approved the Peru deal by a 77-18 majority, meaning that, in the words of Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, "Congress (has) passed another job-killing trade agreement that will shut down our factories, hurt our communities, and send more unsafe food into our kitchens and consumer products into our children's bedrooms."

But if the standard that is applied to senators seeking the presidency is that only their positions on close votes matter, then Clinton would have been wise to skip the fall 2002 vote on whether to permit President Bush to attack Iraq. Then, she could have played the issue different ways, depending on the crowd she was talking to – just as Clinton, and to an even greater extent Obama, cynically portray themselves as corporate critics when they are in front of labor and farm audiences and corporate allies when they are shaking down Wall Street donors.

The fact is that the votes senators choose to skip tell us just as much about them as do the votes they cast.

Clinton, Obama, Biden, Dodd and McCain all have track records on trade issues that have tended to place them on the side of multinational conglomerates and investors rather than workers and farmers in the United States and abroad.

They have all taken too many wrong stands in the clearest and most meaningful economic debate facing the country today. Notably, their positions on past trade tests – and their failure to recognize the significance of Tuesday's Peru vote -- put them at odds with key voters in battleground states such as Ohio, which the Democratic presidential nominee will almost certainly need to win in November, 2008.

As Ohio Senator Brown, arguably the Senate's savviest critic of our country's misguided approach to trade, explained, "The trade polices set in Washington, and negotiated across the globe, have a direct impact on places like Toledo and Steubenville, Cleveland and Hamilton. And that is why voters in my state of Ohio, and across the country, sent a message loud and clear last November, demanding a new direction for our trade policy."

Brown, like the other freshmen Democrats elected to the Senate in 2006, understands something that Clinton and Obama are still missing."Our current trade model chases short-term profits for the few, at the expense of long-term prosperity, health and safety for the many. It's a model that doesn't work. Look at our trade deficit, look at manufacturing job losses, look at wage stagnation, look at imported product recalls, look at forced labor, child labor, slave labor. Look what it does to communities," says the senator, who made changing trade policy a central issue in his successful challenge to Republican Senator Mike DeWine, as did other Democratic winners such as Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Claire McMaskill of Missouri, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, John Tester of Montana and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island – all of whom opposed the Peru deal.

Senators who have actually faced the voters in key states in recent elections share Brown's position that, "We want trade and plenty of it – but under rules that raise standards and ensure American exports have a lasting and sustainable market of consumers. Trade can be a development tool. The American people want a pro-trade, pro-development, pro-labor and forward-looking approach."

That's the sort of statement that a Democratic presidential nominee should be making next year.

But neither Clinton nor Obama will be in a position to deliver the message -- at least not to any voter who expects more than empty rhetoric.

The Peru vote gave both senators a chance to send a clear signal that they understand the need to set a new course on trade. That signal would have helped to distinguish them from any of the likely Republican nominees. But they skipped the chance to make it. As such, Clinton and Obama are stuck with their records – which, at least on this issue, mark them as unacceptable choices.

Hopefully, Iowa voters, who are hearing so much from Clinton and Obama these days, will notice that both of the apparent frontrunners failed to stand with their own senator, Tom Harkin, a one-time proponent of free trade who saw the light some years ago and who on Tuesday voted against the Peru deal.

Renewing the Cold War

This past June, Katrina vanden Heuvel blogged about President Bush's plan to deploy a proposed a missile defense system in both the Czech Republic and Poland despite the reluctance of the host countries, where public opinion polls show most Czechs opposing the planned base as well as the little fact, as amply reported, that the system's technology doesn't yet work.

The project is also a bad idea because it's a blatant provocation to Russia which has fiercely opposed US plans to deploy new missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, asking that Washington use radars on Russian soil to counter possible missile threats from Iran. The two countries have held a series of talks on the issue, but so far the US has been un-accepting of a compromise.

This past November 16 a group of peace activists, organized by the Campaign for Peace and Democracy, presented a statement of support to Ambassador Martin Palous at the Permanent Mission of the Czech Republic to the UN in Manhattan. It was presented in support of Czech demonstrations against a military base the US and Czech Republic plan to set up near Prague for radar for an anti-missile system that will be based in Poland.

The letter is posted below. It details numerous good reasons to oppose the base plan. Click here to join Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Ariel Dorfman, Katha Pollitt and many others in signing on in support of the statement.

Solidarity with Opponents of Proposed US Military Base In the Czech Republic

We, the undersigned, declare our solidarity with the November 17, 2007 protest by the No Bases Initiative in the Czech Republic, where demonstrations took place against the plans of the Czech government to host the radar for a US anti-missile system.

The No Bases Initiative chose the date of November 17 because, in their words, this date "has come to symbolize the overthrow of the undemocratic regime in the former Czechoslovakia and the return of representative democracy. This change came about because of the protest of hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Prague eighteen years ago." In the view of these Czech activists, resistance to the introduction of new foreign military bases is the most fitting way to commemorate that anniversary.

Polls have shown that a significant majority of the people in the Czech Republic oppose the US. military facilities, but the Czech government is flagrantly ignoring public opinion. As the No Bases Initiative notes, "Politicians had known for a number of years of US plans to install a military base on Czech territory but had kept this information from the public. They didn't consider it important to tell voters before last year's parliamentary elections either." This Saturday, Czech protestors will be calling for a popular referendum to vote on this critical issue.

The proposed new US base in the Czech Republic and related interceptor missiles to be based in Poland mark a dangerous escalation. As activists from the Czech Republic and Poland, as well as from Hungary, Belgium, Greece, France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom have stated, "The realisation of the US plan will not lead to enhanced security. On the contrary - it will lead to new dangers and insecurities. Although it is described as 'defensive,' in reality it will allow the United States to attack other countries without fear of retaliation. It will also put 'host' countries on the front line in future US wars." (Prague Declaration, "Peace Doesn't Need New Missiles -We say no to the US missile defense system in Europe" May 2007)

Indeed, the announcement of the plans for military bases in the Czech Republic and Poland has already produced an ominous response from Russia. The projected US radar in the Czech Republic and 10 missile interceptors in Poland don't constitute an immediate threat to Russia's nuclear deterrent, with its thousands of warheads, but as the New York Times pointed out on October 10 of this year, "Kremlin officials are believed to fear that the system in Central Europe will lead to a more advanced missile defense that could blunt the Russian nuclear force. Russian officials have threatened to direct their missiles toward Europe if the United States proceeds with the system. They also have said they will suspend participation in a separate treaty limiting the deployment of conventional forces in Europe." This is an unjustified reaction, endangering innocent populations, but is part of the crazy logic of superpower confrontation that the US move exacerbates.

Washington claims that the new facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic are designed to respond to a missile threat from Iran, but there is no credible evidence that such a threat exists today. And the militaristic stance of the United States, far from protecting the US or Europe from such a threat in the future, only enhances its likelihood. We need only to look at the example of North Korea, where years of military threats from the United States provided a strong inducement to seek nuclear weapons for their defense.

We do not believe that any nation should develop nuclear weapons, which by their nature are weapons of vast and indiscriminate mass destruction. The United States and other nuclear powers can best reduce the danger of nuclear warfare by taking major steps toward both nuclear and conventional disarmament and refraining from waging or threatening "preventive" war -- not by expanding the nuclear threat. Such steps by the existing nuclear powers would create a political context that would powerfully discourage new countries from developing their own nuclear weapons.

Many of us, as Americans, have a particular moral responsibility to speak out. US bases threaten the world. According to respected foreign policy analyst Chalmers Johnson, in 2004 the U.S. had 737 overseas military bases, not counting garrisons in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, and Uzbekistan, nor U.S. military and espionage installations in the UK. This vast network of overseas bases supports a foreign policy of military interventions and global intimidation.

We are dismayed that the Czech Republic, rather than standing as a beacon for peace, is cooperating with the expansion of the Pentagon and allowing a military base to be imposed on the country. We are further dismayed by the fact that the Czech Republic recently opposed a UN resolution highlighting concerns over the military use of depleted uranium. It was one of only six countries to oppose the resolution that was supported by 122 nations. With such actions, the Czech government is doing a disservice both to its own real security, by making the Czech Republic a target, and to the prospects for peace and the spirit of November 17.

We are inspired by the principled actions of the people in the Czech Republic who are taking to the streets to resist the steps toward a new Cold War being pursued by elites unresponsive to public opinion. We join with them in a commitment to bring together the people of all countries in building an international movement for peace, democracy and social justice.

Please go to the Campaign for Peace and Democracy website to sign, donate, or see the full list of signers.

Hillary, Obama and Healthcare

With Iowa one month away, the almost obsessive horserace coverage is in full swing and, as it has for much of campaign, it shortchanges the substance of the serious and urgent issues in dispute.

Take the fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over whose healthcare plan would cover more people or cost less. The substance of that battle received about two sentences in today's Washington Post front page story out of Iowa. But here's the real problem (because we all know horserace coverage is what we're going to get at this stage in this endless campaign)....Even if the Post or the Times devoted a full story analyzing the leading candidates' healthcare proposals, how much attention would the two papers give to alternatives offered by someone like Congressman Dennis Kucinich--the only candidate supporting a truly universal, Medicare for all, healthcare plan that, according to recent polls, has majority support? I suspect very little. In our downsized politics of excluded alternatives, media polices the parameters of what's considered "realistic" when it comes to many choices, including healthcare reform.

That's why a recent analysis of the mainstream candidates' healthcare proposals is so valuable. Released byHealthcare-NOW, an organization committed to universal single payer reform, it's a useful guide for voters who want to understand the full range of choices they should be seeking in this campaign. It's not that all of the leading candidates' proposals aren't advances over what we have now, but as voters and citizens we could demand more. And it will require an independent progressive movement to push truly universal healthcare reform onto the next president's agenda.

Check out the analysis below, prepared by Len Rodberg, Research Director, New York Metro Chapter, Physicians for a National Health Program, September 25, 2007. Presented to the New York Chapter of Healthcare-NOW on November 6, 2007.

The Mainstream Democratic Candidate' Proposals for Universal Healthcare

The mainstream Democratic candidates for President -- John Edwards, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton -- have each put forward their proposals for "affordable quality health coverage for all." The three Democrats' proposals, while purporting to provide "universal health care", will not actually achieve this goal:

None of these plans offers a realistic way of containing the rising cost of health care. All will add additional funds to an already too-costly system. None will truly provide universal access to care.

Only a single payer national health insurance program can actually achieve affordable, workable universal access to health care.

The three proposals share a set of common elements:

The private insurance system would remain in place, with no fundamental change in the way it operates. Those who currently have insurance would not experience any change in how they are insured or the coverage they have.

Large employers would be required to provide insurance for their employees or (in the case of Edwards and Obama) pay into a fund to subsidize insurance for their employees.

Everyone (for Edwards and Clinton) or children (for Obama) would be required to have insurance, either through their employer or purchased on their own (an "individual mandate"). Income-related subsidies would be provided through the tax system.

Insurers would be required to offer coverage to everyone ("guaranteed issue") without limits on pre-existing conditions, and without "large premium differences based on age, gender, or occupation" (from Clinton's plan).

All would make available a "choice" of private insurance plans, as well as a public insurance option modeled on Medicare. (They use the language of the insurance industry -- and Hillary Clinton uses it in the name of her plan itself, the "American Health Choices Plan" -- suggesting that what consumers want is a choice of plan.)

All claim to achieve cost savings through expanded use of information technology, an emphasis on prevention, and better chronic care management.

What is missing from these plans?

Since multiple payers would remain (even if one of them might be a public payer), few of the savings and simplifications that are possible with a singe payer can be achieved.

Consumers must purchase insurance, but no limits are proposed on what insurers can charge them.

No regulations are proposed that would assure the adequacy of benefits or that would affect either the restrictions that insurers now impose on the choice of doctor and hospital or the way they handle, and deny, claims.

There is no simplification of the complex and wasteful private insurance system with its copays, deductibles, exclusions, and claim denials.

There is no assurance of a "level playing field" between the public insurance plan and the private ones. Insurance company advertising and targeted marketing will still be used to promote private plans over public and to avoid the poor and the sick. At the same time, the private insurers will surely insist on the additional subsidies they already enjoy in the Medicare Advantage program.

Nothing is proposed that would control the rising cost of health care. (The measures they suggest to achieve savings may well increase costs rather than reduce them. In any case, the possibility for savings is speculative at this point.)

Are these plans politically "realistic"?

The insurance companies will resist guaranteed issue and community rating, as well as other requirements in some of the plans (e.g., Edwards would require that they spend at least 85 percent of their revenue on medical care).

Business will resist a mandate that they purchase insurance. (In Massachusetts, they were unwilling to pay more than $295 per employee, and even objected to that small fee.)

None of these plans improves the situation of those who currently have insurance. Thus they are unlikely to generate strong popular support.

The proposed subsidies -- amounting to about $2,400 per uninsured individual -- are about half the cost of purchasing group insurance today. Millions will continue to find insurance unaffordable. (The attempt to impose an individual mandate in Massachusetts is already showing that, as long as the program continues to rely on private insurers, very large subsidies will be needed if coverage is to be both affordable and comprehensive; without such subsidies, either coverage will be limited, or it will be unaffordable.)

Millions of Americans who are currently underinsured, and threatened with bankruptcy in the event of serious illness, will continue to be underinsured and insecure.

These plans would add significantly to our overall spending on health care, already the highest in the world, with much of the additional spending going to insurance company administrative costs and profits.

Conclusion: These Plans Will Not Work! None of these plans will truly provide universal access to care. They do not overcome the very significant deficiencies of private insurance. None assures the American people of comprehensive coverage, none offers a realistic way of containing the rising cost of health care, and all would add additional funds to an already too-costly system.

They are at best a diversion from the direction we should be going, toward the creation of a single national, publicly-funded insurance pool that can provide comprehensive, continuous, cost-effective coverage along with the budgetary tools needed to begin containing costs.

Bush Buddy Putin Trumps Democracy, Chavez Embraces It

So how's George Bush's campaign for to spread his version of "democracy" going?

The results are in from the American president's favorite former superpower, the Russian Federation, and from his least favorite hemispheric neighbor, Venezuela.

Russian has been a special project of the Bush presidency.

Since claiming his chair in the Oval Office -- with an assist from a 5-4 Republican majority on the Supreme Court -- Bush has done his best to maintain friendly relations with Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

Famously, Bush declared after meeting with Putin in June of 2001 that, "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country."

Bush has worked hard to encourage Putin to respect the popular will and the American president has guarded against isolating the man in Moscow, even going so far as to front the drive to secure Russia a place in the World Trade Organization.

Venezuela, on the other hand, has always been written off as a lost case.

President Hugo Chavez's efforts to redistribute the country's oil wealth to aid the poor never sat well with our oil-man president, who administration quietly encouraged an attempted military coup against the elected leader.

Every effort has been made to isolate Venezuela, and to diminish and demonize its president as a dictator.

So the stage was set for the weekend's voting in Russia and Venezuela.

What a remarkable juxtaposition the elections in these two country's would provide!

And so they did.

In an election so managed and manipulated that key opposition parties were tossed off the ballot and critics of Putin were jailed, the Russian president has completely consolidating power in himself. The United Russia Party ticket he headed has claimed total control of the national government in voting that opposition campaigner and former world chess champ Garry Kasparov dismisses as "the dirtiest" in Russian history.

"There can be no doubt that, measured by our standards, these were not free and fair elections, they were not democratic elections," says German government spokesman Thomas Steg. "Russia was no democracy and it is no democracy."

And what of Venezuela?

In voting that saw a massive turnout but few serious complaints about irregularities, voters in the South American country rejected Chavez's request for constitutional changes that would have increased his authority and allowed him to serve as president for so long as he continued to win elections. In effect, the voters chose to maintain term limits on a popular leader who was seen as having overreached.

Accepting the results, Chavez held up a copy of the constitution he had attempted to alter and declared, "We will continue constructing socialism but under this constitution."

Thus, in the country where Bush worked with Putin to advance some kind of democracy, there is no democracy.

And in the country where Bush did everything he could to undermine the elected and popular leader, democracy appears to have prevailed.

Incident in Rochester, Challenge for Clinton

The problem for Hillary Clinton that arises from the incident in which a disturbed man invaded her Rochester, New Hampshire, campaign headquarters is not any kind of physical threat. Clinton is the most carefully-managed and thoroughly-secured presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan, who when he began to show the first signs of the dementia was placed in a sort of protective custody during the 1984 campaign. Clinton is is no greater danger now than she has been in since the start of her campaign; and neither, thankfully, were her New Hampshire supporters, who exited the headquarters without injury.

The problem for Clinton is a political one.

The incident in Rochester reminds prospective Democratic primary voters and caucus-goers that the front-runner for the party's presidential nomination is a celebrity candidate who attracts controversy, who is legitimately seen as divisive and who-- barring a major shift in tone and style -- will always campaign at a distance from the American people.

This is not entirely fair to Clinton. She has indeed been the victim of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that she named after millionaire conservatives and their paid minions defining her as a cruel and conniving egomaniac who would stop at nothing to obtain power and position.

But there is nothing fair about American politics. And, while Clinton has made some progress when it comes to softening her image, she has not begun to transform herself so successfully as did the "ruthless" Bobby Kennedy in 1967 and 1968 -- or even the "boring" Al Gore in the period since he ceded the presidency to George Bush.

Hillary Clinton remains a charged figure who excites great passions. She is a highest-profile politician whose fame is both blessing and curse. The blessing is that, without offering much more than platitudes, she has been able to wink and nod her way to the top of most Democratic polls. The curse is that, if an desperate man in Rochester, New Hampshire, is looking for a campaign headquarters to invade, it's going to be Clinton's.

If a few other desperate men target the Clinton campaign in coming weeks -- or even a desperate woman as hyped up as the one who called the Democratic senator a "bitch" at a recent John McCain event -- the contender who so recently seemed inevitable will be in trouble.

It's won't be Clinton's fault, at least not wholly. But incidents of this kind will make Democrats, who think they have a good chance of winning the presidency in 2008, start asking: Why invite the volatility that goes with Hillary Clinton? Why not nominate someone -- a John Edwards, a Barack Obama, even a Bill Richardson -- who provokes a little less passion?

To deny that such thinking will go on in the heads not just of pundits but of grassroots Democrats would be absurd as the calculus that said John Kerry was the most electable Democrat of 2004.

The challenge for Clinton, then, is not to avoid the issue. She must confront it. She must turn her volatility to her advantage. She should take a risk that puts her outside the comfort zone of her own campaign -- and of contemporary politics. She should speak bluntly about the bitter partisanships, the crude tactics, the open hatreds that now characterize campaigning and that so undermine the ability of elected leaders to govern in a functional, let alone inspiring, manner.

The incident in Rochester was not a big deal. It was overplayed by the media. Clinton and her aides are safe, as safe as any serious presidential contenders and their hangers on. But the Friday's headquarters invasion got the attention it did for a reason. Everyone recognizes the emotions -- both positive and negative -- that Hillary Clinton inspires. And everyone suspects that they could boil over again, either physically or politically.

Clinton needs to address her perception and her reality as a remarkable political figure who has already made a great deal of history and could make a great deal more. She cannot do it with spin. The reliance on spin, on managed messages and manipulated moments, is a big part of what Americans -- even some of her supporters -- distrust about her.

Hillary Clinton needs to open up. She needs to speak frankly. She needs to acknowledge that, for better or worse, she inspires intense reactions. She needs to start talking about that intensity. And she needs to explain to the American people -- if she can -- how that intensity, as opposed to silly spin about "bringing us all together, is what this country needs after George Bush's sleepwalk across the minefield.

If Clinton does this, it will not matter what passions play out during the course of the coming campaign. She will be on her way to the Oval Office. If she fails to do so, Clinton will remain vulnerable to the incidents that are all but certain to unfold, and that vulnerability will beg questions that could well cost her the presidency.

Mental Health and the Hillary Hostage Situation

I don't know anything more about Leeland Eisenberg--the 40-something year old man who held Hillary Clinton's campaign office in Rochester, New Hampshire, hostage for several hours this afternoon--than what's being reported on network news. But the ordeal--which thankfully ended without any casualties--ought to focus attention on the dire state of mental health care in this country. More than a third of this country's homeless population have severe mental health issues, including schizophrenia and manic depression. At least one in every six inmates in America have been diagnosed with serious mental health conditions.

The gutting of public mental health services began with Reagan, first in California where he closed state-funded mental health facilities. As president he cut aid for federally-funded community-run mental health programs. The result: thousands of more homeless people in California and nationwide and a spike in the prison population. The New York Times recently reported that despite a rapid rise in the suicide rate in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the city has half of its psychiatrists, social workers and mental health care workers.

Just this year, John Broderick, the Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, drew attention to this crisis when his son was released from prison. Suffering from depression and severe anxiety, Broderick's son injured him in a violent attack in 2002 and served three years in prison. As Broderick noted in a press conference earlier this year, only 1.5 percent of New Hampshire's prison budget went to mental health services.

Without appearing to capitalize on the situation, Clinton, and all elected officials, can and should take this incident as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of mental health services in any health care package, criminal justice reform, and indeed, in any vision of what a more caring, safer America looks like.

Bringing Democracy Home

We're headed into an election year with Americans in overwhelming numbers looking for a dramatic change in direction. Progressives have already pushed some major issues onto the table – ending the war in Iraq, affordable healthcare, alternative energy, global warming and trade. But the limits of the current debate are also increasingly apparent: where's the agenda to deal seriously with Gilded Age inequality? With the tsunami of foreclosures precipitated by the subprime mortgage crisis? Where's the public investment agenda to address the staggering investment deficit in infrastructure? Where's the attention to poverty and stunning racial inequalities – from childhood poverty to criminal justice? And, as The Nation pointed out in a recent special issue on "The US & The World: 2008 & Beyond," leading candidates of both parties remain committed to increasing a military budget that is already as large as the rest of the world's military spending combined.

The emerging pro-democracy movement is working to address these symptoms of our downsized politics of excluded alternatives, as well as much of what ails our broken voting system: not only reliable voting machines, but Election Day registration, fighting 21st century Jim Crow tactics , and getting the obscene piles of money out of our politics. (See Ari Berman's post on how it's now estimated that spending for the congressional and presidential campaigns will top $5 billion!)

Another important step towards advancing our democracy is implementing instant runoff voting (IRV), and it's making headway these days at the state and local levels, and showing promise for federal elections too. With IRV, voters can vote their conscience and not worry that a vote is being "wasted" on someone who "can't win." IRV promotes greater debate and more alternatives, and also results in the winning candidate having the support of the majority of voters. Here's how it works: if four candidates were on a ballot, you would rank them one to four. When the votes are tabulated, if one of the candidates is the first choice for 50 percent of the voters, then he or she wins. If not, then the last-place candidate is eliminated, and if you voted for that candidate, your vote in the next round of tabulations is added to the vote totals of the candidate you ranked as your second choice. The process continues until one candidate receives over 50 percent of the vote.

In Australia, IRV was introduced in 1918, and has historically benefited parties on both the left and the right. Last Saturday, it helped the Australian Labor Party – but not before the Australian Greens were able to run a strong campaign and collect 8 percent of the parliamentary vote, and perhaps push debate further on issues like climate change and the Iraq War than Labor wanted to go. In the initial tabulation Labor won only 44 percent of the vote, but with IRV most of the Green votes ended up being awarded to Labor. The party had worked hard to be the second choice of Green voters, and designated former Midnight Oil lead Singer Peter Garrett – "a-rock-star-environmentalist-turned-politico" – as their likely environment minister. In the end, Labor ended up with 54 percent of the two-party tally.

"What a difference a fair voting method like instant runoff voting can make," Rob Richie, Executive Director of FairVote told me. "With IRV, Greens not only didn't split the vote and help elect candidates opposing their positions, but they got to make their case for change in a way that almost certainly transformed majority opinion on the environment and Iraq and made the Labor Party more responsive to that opinion. And with proportional voting in the senate, the Greens have ongoing power, all the better positioned to help hold Labor accountable to its campaign promises."

In the US, IRV has been chosen by voters in more than a dozen city ballot initiatives. Most recently, voters in Sarasota, FL and Aspen, CO elected to move to IRV by a three-to-one margin. In Pierce County, WA 67 percent of voters chose to keep IRV on track for next year's county executive race. The city council of Santa Fe, NM gave unanimous preliminary approval to place IRV on the March 2008 ballot. Finally, in Vermont, IRV looks promising for congressional elections next year – it's passed the state senate and there are encouraging signs it will pass in the house too.

In a recent op-ed , former Illinois Congressman and presidential candidate, John Anderson, advocated for IRV and noted that "one-third of all voters who are not registered as Republican or Democrat feel pressured to vote against their worst nightmare rather than their best hope…. General elections should be a marketplace of innovative ideas, and independent and third-party candidates can prevent them from becoming a showcase for an overly narrow ideological duopoly."

Until we get a system which is more democratic – including IRV and other democracy reforms – we won't have as effective an independent politics and as vibrant a debate as we deserve.

Exclusive: Washington Lobbying Secrets Sort of Exposed

Did you know that people increasingly use the Internet, even more so than radio? Or that e-mail is an effective communication tool but recipients don't like flooded in-boxes?

Yes! It's true and I learned it all at a $225-a-ticket briefing called "Innovative Advocacy: New Strategies for Effective Advocacy" sponsored by the United States Chamber of Commerce and the Adfero Group, a D.C. public affairs firm. I was hoping to get an inside look at the secret handshakes of the Washington rainmakers and influencers but it was not to be. Mostly the hill staffers and lobbyists who spoke debated things like whether or not e-mail is the "only way to communicate." It turns out no, it is not.

There were a few interesting nuggets: One powerpoint slide showed results from a poll in which Congressional staffers ranked the information sources they use for research. The Congressional Research Service, which is only starting to become open to the general public, finished first followed by Capitol Hill rags (like The Hill and Roll Call). "Political blogs," meanwhile, finished 15 out of 15 behind "Unsolicited policy materials from advocacy organizations" and "Other types of blogs."

"Everybody says we ought to start using the blogosphere" said Eric Hultman, chief of staff for Nebraska GOP Representative Lee Terry. "Eh, I'm not so sure."

Staffers and lobbyists also shared their concerns, or lack thereof, about new lobbying and ethics reform. A concerned member of the powerful D.C. law firm, Hogan & Hartson, asked about inviting staffers to a reception, with new rules preventing staffers from accepting meals from lobbyists.

"I had a staff member confused by the new ethics rules," recalled Hultman. "He said there was Makers Mark, Grey Goose, shrimp and filet mignon. I asked, 'Did you use a fork?' He said no and so I said, 'Enjoy!'"

The most valuable part of the briefing, however, for this marginalized politcal blogger was an inspiring look at Capitol Hill movers-and-shakers. A slide entitled a "World of Info and Media" gave sage tips like when eating dinner with friends to "check Blackberry twice" and "Multitask on morning commute: listen to podcast of Washington Week while flipping through Washington Post, watch 5-minute video podcast of ABC News Top Headlines, check Blackberry 6 times."

So maybe the secret to Washington advocacy is to never have time to consider life outside of Washington.

World AIDS Day

To most casual observers of AIDS, which is to say, most people who haven't known anyone afflicted with HIV, the situation seems to be improving rapidly. While this view is not without foundation when looked at from one (narrow) perspective, the reality is far more complicated and determined by class than most media accounts suggest.

The fact is that the spread of HIV and AIDS continues to be a major challenge across the globe, the epidemic is growing and there is concerning evidence that some countries are seeing a resurgence in new infection rates that were previously stable or declining.

According to the UNAIDS/WHO 2006 AIDS Epidemic Update, an estimated 39.5 million people are currently living with HIV. There were 4.3 million new infections in 2006 with 2.8 million (65 percent) of these occurring in sub-Saharan Africa and significant increases seen in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where there are indications that infection rates have risen by more than 50 percent since 2004. The latest National AIDS Control Organization report showed 72,000 new HIV infections in 2005, compared to 28,000 in 2004 – a 157 percent jump. Most of the new infections are in the 22 to 45 age group. In 2006, 2.9 million people died of AIDS-related illnesses.

This Saturday's World AIDS Day -- the nineteenth -- is trying to keep these facts present in the minds of those whose energy and money have been crucial in combating the disease in the past. Started on December 1, 1988, World AIDS Day is not just about raising money, but also about increasing awareness, fighting prejudice, improving education and reminding people that HIV has not gone away, and that there are many things still to be done.

The day is also an important opportunity for activists to galvanize public and legislative sentiment behind campaigns like Planned Parenthood's call for Congress to halt funding for harmful abstinence-only programs that deny teenagers life-saving information about preventing infections like HIV/AIDS and the National AIDS Housing Coalition's push for policy-makers worldwide to acknowledge the link between stable housing and positive health outcomes when addressing HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment.

Here are some ways you can support World AIDS Day, courtesy of the Avert website:

  • Help save a child's life in an AIDS-affected community by becoming a HopeChild sponsor through WorldVision. (All it takes is one dollar a day.)
  • Raise awareness of HIV and AIDS in your area by wearing a red ribbon and ask others to do the same.
  • Sign up as a supporter of the Stop AIDS in Children campaign.
  • Protect yourself and your partners--this is the first and best way to stop the spread of HIV.
  • Put up some posters--get people talking.
  • Organize a creative writing/poster campaign.
  • Set up a debate or a quiz - there are lots of ideas for topics on the Avert site.
  • Get your friends, family, colleagues or pupils to express their feelings about AIDS.
  • Learn more about HIV and AIDS: avert.org has a great deal of information about AIDS and the global epidemic.

There are also related concerts, panels, parties and all sorts of other events taking place across the globe on Saturday. Check out this site for details.