The Nation

The Race Begins

As Nation.com readers need no reminding, tomorrow residents of Iowa will become the first citizens in the country to weigh in on the presidential nominees. But not all residents of the state get to vote because it uses a caucus system (as does Nevada) instead of an open primary.

Watch this video by the youth voting group, Why Tuesday, if you're confused about the caucusing.

Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Hillary Clinton have special sites and videos that offer instructions for how to caucus. Clinton emphasizes how easy it is, and Obama's and Edwards' step-by-step instructional videos make the point that caucusing is cool.

In comparison, New Hampshire, the second state to vote on a presidential nominee, holds its primary on January 8 and is the first to let its entire voting population vote on each nominee. New Hampshire treasures its placement in the primary calendar, and people there take its primary role very seriously. Candidates and campaign staff know that unless they've stood in a voter's living room, the voters in these two first states don't consider you a real candidate. There's even a truism in Iowa that no one caucuses for a candidate that they haven't met.

After New Hampshire, Michigan follows on January 15, and South Carolina -- the first Southern state -- holds its primary on January 26, with the controversial early Florida vote three days later. Then there's Tsunami-Tuesday, as much of the rest of the country chimes in on February 5.

If I was an Iowa resident I'd caucus for Obama. Take The Nation's unscientific straw poll to tell us who you support and read The Nation's latest editorial to see what the magazine is thinking about the Democratic field.

Hillary's Man Problem

A lot of men don't like Hillary. A lot of men say they don't want to vote for Hillary--even Democratic men. The new Los Angeles Times/ Bloomberg poll, released December 28, shows that only 19 per cent of Democratic men favor Clinton in upcoming caucuses and primaries--less than one in five. The implications for Hillary are ominous: since she can't expect Republican men to vote for her, how can she win the election?

That poll focused on likely voters in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries, but other polls asking a national sample about the November election have come up similar results. A Washington Post-ABC poll in November found that, in a Clinton-Giuliani matchup, men preferred Giuliani 51 to 44. In a CNN poll in October, only 41 per cent of men said Clinton is someone they admire (compared to 57 per cent of women).

Why do so many men dislike Clinton? Is it simply because she's a woman? Susan Carroll, Senior Scholar at the Rutgers University Center for the American Woman and Politics, told me that politics provides a more important explanation than sexism: "Men are more likely than women to identify as Republicans," she explained. "Men are more likely than women to prefer Republican candidates and their policy positions. Men's partisan preferences are the main reason why many of them wouldn't vote for Clinton. Many of the men who say they won't vote for Clinton wouldn't vote for any Democratic candidate, man or woman."

But that doesn't explain the Democratic men who won't vote for Clinton. Some of them disagree with her on the issues, especially her vote for the Iraq war--but for others, the explanation may lie in simple hostility to the idea of any woman as president.

Even if some Democratic men won't vote for her in November, Clinton could still get elected if she won enough votes from Republican women. In fact that's what the Clinton campaign is predicting. Mark Penn, a Clinton senior strategist and pollster, told reporters in October that Clinton could win 24 per cent of Republican women.

With that gain, Hillary could win the election even if 20 per cent of Democratic men voted Republican, according to DailyKos. However recent Rasmussen polls show Clinton winning only 18 per cent of Republican women, rather than the required 24, while losing 20 per cent of Democratic men. That's not enough Republican women to get Clinton elected.

Clinton advocates point out that if she got 44 per cent of the male vote in November -- the figure in that Washington Post poll matchup with Giuliani -- she'd end up ahead of Kerry, who got only 41 per cent of men in 2004. She also would end up ahead of Al Gore, who got 42 per cent of men in 2000.

Amazingly, if she got that 44 per cent of men in November, she'd be doing better than Bill Clinton, who got only 43 per cent of the male vote when he won his reelection race in 1996. According to the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers, Bill Clinton's 43 per cent of men is the best a Democratic candidate has done in the last 25 years.

That suggests Hillary's man problem is not very serious -- but it still might bring her defeat in November. Of course Kerry and Gore would have won if they'd had more votes from men, and Bill Clinton won only because Ross Perot siphoned off conservative (i.e. male) votes from the Republicans. The December polls show Hillary beating Giuliani, but only by one or two points -- too close for comfort -- and losing to McCain by a frightening five points.

Edwards Reaffirms Swift Iraq Withdrawal on Iowa Tour

Mount Pleasant, Iowa -- John Edwards continued his 36-hour tour across Iowa this morning, meeting with canvas organizers over cider and donuts and fielding a few questions from the growing pack of reporters tracking his "middle class marathon." Writing on the front page of today's New York Times, defense correspondent Michael Gordon reports that Edwards has "staked out" an Iraq policy auguring "a more rapid and complete troop withdrawal than his principal rivals," so I asked Edwards whether he is claiming the mantle as the most antiwar candidate in his closing argument. He responded:

I don't make those kind of evaluations. I'm doing what I think is the right responsible course for America, which is to get all our combat troops out of Iraq in the first year of my presidency; end combat missions and have no permanent military bases. America needs to end its occupation of Iraq and I will do that as President.


Tom Hayden sees the Times article as a new development, but I don't really see a major shift in the policy or tone here. Edwards is still closing on economic populism, but reaffirming his Iraq plan when voters or reporters raise the question. Iraq is not mentioned in his current, truncated stump speech, though Edwards did add a reference to ending the war during a pitch to undecided voters at a café in Fairfield this morning. But it's clear that the focus of his closing argument remains beltway-bashing populist passion, as he emphasized today:

The people of Iowa and the people of America are unstoppable when they commit themselves to stopping these entrenched special interests. And I believe that's going to happen, I think it's going to happen tomorrow night in the caucus, and it's going to continue after the caucus through the rest of America.


Time for (Donna) Edwards to Win

In this next month, it's understandable that attention will be paid 36/7 to what happens in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early presidential primaries. But progressive democrats shouldn't lose sight of important races in the House and Senate, and there are some fights to watch in those primaries – fights where good progressive candidates are running.

One critical race is in Maryland's 4th District. In 2006, long-time activist and lawyer Donna Edwards ran against incumbent Albert Wynn on an antiwar message, losing the Democratic primary by just 3 points. Now, with the February 12 primary just around the corner, Edwards is mounting another tenacious challenge to Wynn. She recently picked up two key labor endorsements from the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400 – the latter of whom endorsed Wynn in 2006. (Wynn also "mistakenly" listed the SEIU as a supporter in campaign materials in 2006 though the union had chosen not to endorse in the race.)

"I am honored to receive this endorsement from SEIU and UFCW – two of the most vibrant leaders among organized labor," Edwards wrote me in an email. "These workers join a host of other organizations that have endorsed my candidacy who are fighting to protect the environment, improve the lives of working families, enhance women's rights, for quality, affordable health care and to end the war in Iraq. I am proud to have the support of such diverse groups that have come together to help bring necessary change to Maryland's 4th Congressional District." Other organizations that have endorsed Edwards include Sierra Club, Emily's List, the National Organization for Women, Progressive Democrats of America, ACORN, and the League of Conservation Voters.

Edwards and her supporters make a compelling case on the need for change, pointing not only to Wynn's support for the War in Iraq, but also votes for the Republican Energy Bill, weakening the Endangered Species Act, tax breaks for oil and gas companies, repealing the estate tax, privatizing the Internet, drilling in Alaska, supporting the pharmaceuticals on drug policy and the credit card companies on the bankruptcy bill. Edwards notes that she herself supported Albert Wynn for Congress when he first ran in 1992, but now she calls him "Maryland's Joe Lieberman," saying, "We haven't left Albert Wynn. He's left us."

In contrast, Edwards says, she represents "the hopes and values that are the core of the Democratic Party – for workers, for families, for our country." Indeed, Edwards used her law degree to serve the public interest, fighting domestic violence and gaining a national reputation for that work in the process. Since 2000, she has served as the executive director of The Arca Foundation, one of the most interesting small progressive foundations working today, with a commitment to social justice at home and abroad that spans over 50 years. (I served on the board of Arca for two months – before I realized that it was going to be too demanding...along with The Nation day job! But during that time I had the good fortune to go on a site visit with Donna. She's tenacious, smart – and will do great work for her constituents as she has done throughout her career!)

Edwards' friends in labor see her as the progressive alternative to Wynn as well. Ebs Burnough, Political Director of 1199 SEIU, told the Prince George's Gazette, "Donna Edwards has the progressive principles to best represent the Marylanders in the 4th District. She is a proven leader, supporting living wage campaigns, preventing domestic violence and promoting innovative programs that make a difference in the lives of working families."

"She's a person who's going to help us lead the change," Mark Federici, Director of Strategic Programs with the UFCW local, told the Washington Post. "The change is about progressive values and the value of people that work – living wages, affordable health care, respect and dignity on the job."

Fighting for his political life, Wynn has made a clear move to the left since defeating Edwards by less than 3,000 votes in 2006, in what Maryland State Senator and valued Nation contributor Jamie Raskin calls "a dramatic turnabout." Raskin, a long-time friend of Edwards and a passionate progressive leader in the Maryland General Assembly since his own landslide upset victory in the 2006 Democratic primary (nine of his bills were passed into law in his first legislative session!), says Edwards has already scored a major victory. "Donna could win this in February, but in a sense she's already won because she's established for the rest of our lifetimes that this is an honest-to-goodness progressive district, not a triangulating DLC district whose representative can vote for Republican war drives or top-down class warfare," Raskin told me. "There's no going back on that now. The question is whether Donna will lead in Congress next year or continue to lead from the outside."

The SEIU has 22,350 Maryland members and the UFCW local represents 14,000 workers in the state. Labor endorsements of challengers to Democratic incumbents are rare, as Terry Cavanagh, executive director of the SEIU Maryland State Council, told the Post: "We do a good job holding Republicans accountable during general elections, but we need to do a better job holding Democrats accountable, too. That's what this is about." According to the Post – which also endorsed Edwards in 2006 – the SEIU has designated "getting Edwards elected [as] a top national priority," and both unions plan "an aggressive ground game on her behalf, including mailings, phone banks and door-to-door canvassing."

When someone like Donna Edwards comes along – someone devoted to progressive principles, ready to amplify progressive voices in Congress, and in a position to win elected office – it's important that we stand up and support her. When the frenzy surrounding Iowa and New Hampshire passes, let's remember the maxim that all politics is local. As Donna Edwards said to me, "This election can and should be a real line in the sand moment for progressives to reclaim the Democratic Party. That means getting members of the progressive caucus – women, union members, activists and elected officials – energized about this election to send a real message that voters are no longer willing to accept ‘business as usual.'"

Business as usual isn't just the fault of Republicans. That's why this time around we need to make sure that Donna Edwards wins.

Don't Forget Iraq

Ring in the New Year with a commitment to nonviolent direct action to end the Iraq war and to prevent an extension of US military aggression to Iran and other countries.

Starting last week, antiwar activists in Des Moines, Iowa, have been pressing a campaign of nonviolent direct action, Seasons Of Discontent: a Presidential Occupation Project (SODaPOP), with the "occupations" of the campaign offices of Presidential candidates--both Democrats and Republicans--who have not publicly committed to a withdrawal of US military forces from Iraq within one hundred days of taking office and who do not oppose any and all forms of military action against Iran. (Note: This is everyone except for Kucinich, Gravel and Paul.)

While the majority of Americans favor a quick withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, each of the leading candidates of both parties endorse plans that would keep thousands of troops there for the foreseeable future. "We're very respectful of the [Iowa] Caucus process and the long history behind it," said Voices for Creative Nonviolence (VCNV) coordinator Kathy Kelly at a rally at Nollen Plaza in Des Moines on November 8, "but we feel quite strongly that the issues of this war must be inserted into the process of narrowing down who the candidates for the presidential elections will be."

Consequently, activists from around the nation will join Iowans in occupying campaign offices in the lead-up to the Iowa Caucuses on January 3. The SODaPOP campaign, part of the Voices for Creative Non-Violence, will continue with occupations of pro-war candidates in other states as the primary schedule winds its way across America in the weeks and months ahead.

The coalition's demands are unlikely to be met by whomever wins the White House in November but the point seems worth making that a majority of the American public, the Iraqi public and the world favor a quick and speedy withdrawal. Click here to find out how you can help the cause and click here to help spread the word on the SODaPOP campaign.

Thanks for reading (and acting!) in 2007 and Happy New Year!

The Most Valuable Progressives

Let down by a dangerous Republican White House, a compromising Democratic Congress and a distracting and dysfunctional mainstream media, progressives persevered in 2007, laying the groundwork for what we can only hope will be the different and better politics of 2008. The list of heroes and champions is endless, but here are some of the MVPs -- Most Valuable Progressives -- from the activist, political, media and cultural spheres of the last full year before the last full year of the Bush-Cheney interregnum:

* Most Valuable Teaching Moment: When fundamentalist Republicans made a stink about the fact that newly-elected Minnesota Congressman KEITH ELLISON, the first Muslim elected to the House, would not be swearing his oath on their version of the scriptures, Ellison trumped them with history. He placed his hand on an edition of the Koran that had been donated to the Library of Congress by a student of Islam and all the world's great religions: Thomas Jefferson.

* Most Valuable Activist Group: At a time when Congress and the White House seem to have agreed that there will always be more than enough money for defense spending, the terrific Caucus4Priorities campaign of IOWANS FOR SENSIBLE PRIORITIES has kept alive the concept of a peace dividend. The group -- a grassroots project of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, the national group founded in 1998 by BEN COHEN of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, has used creative tactics and old-fashioned people power to make an issue of wasteful Pentagon spending. In doing so, they've succeeded where the media has failed in forcing presidential candidates to discuss budgeting in deeper and smarter terms. "We aim to redirect 15% of the Pentagon's discretionary budget away from obsolete Cold War weapons towards education, healthcare, job training, alternative energy development, world hunger, deficit reduction," the organizers explain. "This 15% cut, or $60 billion dollars, on obsolete weapons systems and the further proliferation of nuclear weapons does not include the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in no way impacts homeland security or our defense. We have the money; let's spend it on sensible priorities!"

* Most Valuable Activist: TIM CARPENTER of PROGRESSIVE DEMOCRATS OF AMERICA did not just argue that progressives should stay and fight within a Democratic party that seemed to let them down at every turn in 2007. He showed them how to do it by leading PDA's aggressive and unblinking campaigns for rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, impeachment of Bush and Cheney, a single-payer national health care plan, media reform and a real response to climate change. PDA won the confidence of Congressional Progressive Caucus members, with House lefties such as Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters and Raul Grijalva joining its board. Much of the credit goes to the tireless, humble yet unyielding Carpenter.

* Most Valuable Think Tank: LIBERTY TREE: Foundation for the Democratic Revolution is staffed by young, smart thinkers with roots in green and student politics who push the limits of the debate about how to repair elections, reform education and renew the spirit of 1776. Fellows such as BEN MANSKI and KAITLIN SOPOCI-BELKNAP go beyond narrow interpretations of both the Constitution and what is possible in a republic to explore what real democracy would look like at the international, national, state, regional and local levels. Read their great journal and visit them at: www.libertytreefdr.org

* Most Valuable Crusade: When no one else seemed to be getting serious about challenging the Bush-Cheney administration's taste for torture, THE WORLD CAN'T WAIT movement developed an orange campaign – appropriating the color of the jump suits worn by detainees – to highlight popular opposition to violations of the Geneva Conventions and the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. As the torture issue came front and center, DEBRA SWEET and other World Can't Wait activists – most of them veterans of the pre-war Not In Our Name movement -- were already there with a smart, uncompromising challenge to untenable practices and an untenable status quo.

* Most Valuable Internet Site: When people ask about how and where to follow what is happening with the movements to end the war in Iraq, to prevent a war with Iran and to hold to account those who launched one mad war and now seek to initiate another, the answer is always www.AFTERDOWNINGSTREET.org site. Constantly updated by the indefatigable DAVID SWANSON, the site is fresh -- there were even six posts on Christmas Day -- and it features local actions (via YouTube) as well as national interventions. Because it is so thorough and so engaged with local and regional protests and events, the AfterDowningStreet site provides the best illustration of the extent to which mainstream media has neglected the most vital movements of the moment.

* Most Valuable Congressman: ROBERT WEXLER, D-Florida, was appropriately savage in his Judiciary Committee questioning of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Wexler almost single-handedly restored the separation of powers. Then, after Ohio Congressman DENNIS KUCINICH forced House consideration of his proposal to impeach Vice President Cheney, the Florida congressman grabbed the issue and organized a push by key members of the Judiciary Committee to open hearings on the veep's high crimes and misdemeanors. If he keeps this up in 2008, Wexler could yet force the House to be what the founders intended: a check and balance on executive lawlessness.

* Most Valuable Senator: Vermont Independent BERNIE SANDERS boldly battled the Bush administration on the international stage by traveling to Costa Rica before that country's fall referendum vote on whether to accept the Central American Free Trade Agreement. As the Bush administration was making all sorts of threats in order to scare Costa Ricans into capitulating to a neo-liberal agenda that serves Wall Street rather than workers in the U.S. or Latin America, Sanders arrived with the news that the U.S. government includes more than just a White House, and that the Constitution permits not just the president but the Congress to have a say regarding trade policies. Sanders put the White House on notice that its lies and bully tactics would no longer go unchallenged; hopefully, others in the House and Senate will join him in reasserting the strong legislative stance that is essential to transparent and democratic policy making with regard to a troubled economy.

*Most Valuable Commissioner: MICHAEL COPPS may have been on the losing end of the FCC's December vote on whether to knock down barriers to media monopoly in cities across the country. But the dissident commissioner's brilliant detailing of the threats posed to minority ownership, cultural diversity, local news gathering and journalism laid the groundwork for legislative and legal challenges that will upset the 3-2 decision that saw Copps and Commissioner JONATHAN ADELSTEIN stand up to Rupert Murdoch and the Bush White House. Said Copps in his blistering dissent: "Today's decision would make George Orwell proud. We claim to be giving the news industry a shot in the arm--but the real effect is to reduce total newsgathering. We shed crocodile tears for the financial plight of newspapers--yet the truth is that newspaper profits are about double the S&P 500 average. We pat ourselves on the back for holding six field hearings across the United States--yet today's decision turns a deaf ear to the thousands of Americans who waited in long lines for an open mike to testify before us. We say we have closed loopholes--yet we have introduced new ones. We say we are guided by public comment--yet the majority's decision is overwhelmingly opposed by the public as demonstrated in our record and in public opinion surveys. We claim the mantle of scientific research--even as the experts say we've asked the wrong questions, used the wrong data, and reached the wrong conclusions."

* Most Valuable National Radio: RACHEL MADDOW has survived the changes at Air America and thrived. Why? Because she's smart enough to be serious when called for and hilarious when necessary. She's also got a spot-on sense of what it means to be a progressive in an era when the Democratic party often fails to uphold progressive values. She's anti-Bush, and even more scathingly anti-Cheney, but she does not skimp when it comes to holding Democrats to account. Added bonus: Maddow's got a taste for cultural stories that makes her early evening show far broader in scope than most talk radio.

* Most Valuable Local Radio: ARNIE ARNESEN is the New Hampshire radio host all the candidates want to talk to: sort of. Everyone knows Arnesen is smart and fair -- she's a lefty with a libertarian streak who once was the Democratic nominee for governor but who minces no words about the two parties. She's got equally smart and fair listeners. The "trouble" is that Arnesen pulls no punches. She expects her guests to scrap the soundbites and answer questions in full sentences with full ideas. It makes for great radio; indeed, listening to politicos struggle to keep up with her is part of what makes covering the New Hampshire primaries fun. When is some radio network going to be smart enough to take Arnie national?

* Most Valuable Television: MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann is essential viewing that provides a nightly dose of reality to a nation still kept in the dark by most media. But broadcast television remains the vast wasteland that does the most to deaden our discourse, and that is why BILL MOYERS JOURNAL remained the essential antidote to what ails the body politic. Interviews with JEREMY SCAHILL, MARTIN ESPADA, SCOTT RITTER, BARBARA EHRENREICH , LORI WALLACH AND JON STEWART – along with Olbermann and Stephen Colbert, a savior of cable – were among the highlights of 2007. He also devoted an hour to an impeachment discussion featuring Reagan administration lawyer Bruce Fein and this reporter, a commitment that other broadcast or cable program have yet to make.

* Most Valuable Political Book: NAOMI WOLF's THE END OF AMERICA: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot (Chelsea Green). When Wolf started writing about the drift of the United States toward fascism, she was dismissed by some as another casual commentator blowing off some anti-Bush steam. But her detailing of the parallels between steps taken by the current administration and moves made by the 20th century's most notorious dictators to transform democracies into authoritarian states is convincing as it is chilling. And Wolf is not just complaining; she's the "face" of the American Freedom Campaign's important drive to identify and confront assaults on basic liberties and the system of checks and balances.

* Most Valuable Political Album: "KALA" by M.I.A. The Sri Lankan singer -- daughter of a prominent Tamil militant -- speaks truth when she declares: "I put people on the map that never seen a map." This is way beyond world beat. Maya Arulpragasam stirs up a global gumbo of ragga, ganna, soca, dancehall, electro, punk, Bollywood and hip-hop, mixes in heaping helpings of attitude and insight and serves it raw. If there is such a thing as refugee rock, this is it – like the best of Rachid Taha and Tinariwen, only edgier and with a scorching case of "Bird Flu."

* Most Valuable Political Song: "GOD BLESS AMERICA" by JAMES McMURTRY. Written on the cusp of 2006/2007 and circulated on the internet (www.jamesmcmurtry.com) over the past year, no song caught the zeitgeist better than this one – except perhaps McMurtry's previous take on oil wars and the fundamentalisms of Bible-thumping Christians and Weekly Standard-thumping neo-cons. Every McMurtry song has a million-dollar stanzy; in this one it's: "You keep talking that shit like I never heard/ Hush, little President, don't say a word/ When the rapture comes and the angels sing/ God's gonna buy you a diamond ring…" Watch for McMurtry's upcoming album with "God Bless America." It'll be a great send-off for the little President who couldn't.

Oprah Winfrey versus John Mellencamp

DES MOINES -- The announcement of John Mellencamp's Wednesday night show to cap the Iowa caucus campaign of John Edwards did not provoke the media frenzy that accompanied Oprah Winfrey's Des Moines tarmac tap on behalf of rival Democrat Barack Obama.

For this, Edwards should be thankful.

Obama stalled in the Iowa polls after Winfrey visited the state on his behalf early in December. With hours to go before the caucusing begins, he's essentially where he was a month ago -- ahead in many polls, but mainly on the strength of young and independent voters who may or may not show for caucuses that traditionally have been dominated by older and more partisan Democrats.

In contrast, national front-runner Hillary Clinton, who fumbled repeatedly in November and early December, and Edwards, who had been written out of the race by some pundits, appear to have regained their positions going into tonight's voting.

Obama misread Iowa. He bet on style over substance in a state where activist Democrats take seriously the definitional role their play in the nominating process. The senator from Illinois, who had so much momentum at the beginning of December, calculated that the Hawkeye state might be locked up by a recommendation from a multi-media persona whose entry into presidential politics came off a little like the launch of a new "project."

None of this means that Obama should be counted out in Iowa. He has spent far more money than the other candidates on slick TV ads, he has hired some of the best caucus strategists and his campaign is tossing every charge and claim it can muster into a drive to blunt the momentum that has belonged to Edwards since he dominated the last pre-caucus debate between the Democratic contenders.

Obama is still the safe bet to win tonight.

But, despite his many advantages, the Illinoisan could well finish behind Edwards.

That's because the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president has waged a dramatically different campaign than Obama's feel-good effort. Where Obama has run the softest sort of campaign, Edwards is mounting a edgy, muscular effort that owes more to the memory of Paul Wellstone or the sensibilities of Ralph Nader than to the smooth triangulations of Bill Clinton or the not-so-smooth compromises of John Kerry.

Edwards has fought his way back into contention with aggressively populist positions, anti-corporate rhetoric and a campaign that eschews glitz for grit -- as evidenced by a grueling 36-hour marathon campaign swing that includes the Mellencamp visit. Necessarily, the former senator from North Carolina opts for a different sort of celebrity than the other contenders.

So it is that Mellencamp comes to Iowa to close the Edwards celevrate the Edwards campaign with a "This Is Our Country" rally at the not-exactly-Hollywood Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines. (In case anyone missed the point here, tickets were distributed not through some slick internet delivery system but from the United Steelworkers Local 310 hall.)

Where Winfrey brought a big name but little in the way of a track record on issues that are fundamental to the rural and small-town Iowans who historically have played a disproportional role in tonight's caucuses, Mellencamp is more than just another celebrity taking a lap around the policy arena.

For a quarter century, the singer has been in the thick of the fight on behalf of the rural families he immortalized in the video for "Rain on the Scarecrow," his epic song about the farm crisis that buffeted Iowa and neighboring states in the 1980s and never really ended.

Mellencamp has not merely sung about withering small towns and farm foreclosures. As a organizer of Farm Aid, he has brought some of the biggest stars in the world to benefit concerts in Iowa and surrounding states, and he has helped to distribute the money raised at those events to organizations across Iowa.

Farm Aid is nonpartisan. It's not endorsing in this race. But Mellencamp is. The singer, who this year will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but whose music remains vital enough to have earned a 2008 Grammy nomination for Best Rock Vocal Performance, was lobbied for support by other campaigns, especially Clinton's. But he has a long relationship with Edwards. He has an even longer relationship with the issues that Edwards is talking about. Indeed, his credibility is grounded in the recognition that Mellencamp has repeatedly taken career-risking anti-war, anti-racist and anti-poverty stances that other celebrities of his stature tend to avoid.

What matters, of course, is the fact of that credibility -- and the fact that it is so closely tied to the farm and rural issues that have meaning even in the more urbanized regions of Iowa. That is why, if there is an endorsement that is going to have meaning with the people who drive down country roads to attend caucuses Thursday night, it could well be that of the guy who proudly sings that, "I was born in a small town..."

Obama: More Money, More Problems

Barack Obama's presidential campaign is circulating an unusual memo complaining that "unprecedented" spending by Democratic groups could "impact the outcome" in next week's Iowa Caucuses. Campaign Manager David Plouffe does not allege any illegal activity by other candidates, but he claims that some of the advertising by unions and liberal organizations is "underhanded," "negative," and "misleading." The Edwards Campaign fired back this weekend, arguing that Obama's "desperate, false attacks" showed that Edwards was surging in Iowa - and touting his record of declining any contributions from Washington lobbyists or PACs.

If Obama's aides were confident about Iowa, it's hard to imagine their ideal closing argument would be railing against the legal spending of groups that other candidates do not control. Yet as The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza reports, Obama has spent "much of the last week" on this point -- a "major gamble," since campaign spending is "a topic that usually glazes over the eyes of the average voter." But if the hyper-informed activists who caucus do dig into the topic, they might not like what they find.

Obama is basically complaining about the political activities of union-affiliated groups, which are strongly supported by many Democratic voters. All the candidates seek union endorsements in the primaries -- and rely on their spending and mobilization efforts in the general election. (Unions spent over $60 million on the midterms.) So it's hard to take Obama's complaint seriously, as Paul Krugman noted, when the road to the White House includes plenty more spending by outside groups. And even putting aside the general election, outside groups are currently backing Obama, including a California organization registered as a "527" and a PAC. So Obama's concerns sound more like sour grapes -- AFSCME and SEIU would probably face little criticism if they were spending money on him. (They are helping Clinton and Edwards, respectively.)

Now maybe Obama is simply using the homestretch to blunt one of Edwards' strengths, as an anti-Washington crusader. Yet that risks drawing attention to Obama's own fundraising records. The Illinois senator no longer takes contributions from Washington lobbyists, but he pocketed over $125,000 from lobbyists in his last two campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and $1.3 million from PACs. Edwards shuns those contributions, and on Saturday he uppped the ante on Obama's challenges by pledging to ban lobbyists from working in his administration. For his part, Obama has introduced solid lobbying and campaign finance reforms, and he was an early backer of Senator Russ Feingold's Presidential Funding Act of 2007 -- the gold standard for reviving public financing for presidential elections.

In the end, both Edwards and Obama have solid (and similar) campaign finance proposals, while Edwards has a longer record of restricting donations to his own campaigns. Primaries often make minor differences seem large, and plenty of candidates have excelled by attacking their opponents' strengths. Obama is straining to attack precisely where Edwards holds an edge -- a slight one on policy, but larger when it comes to his general reputation for fighting corporate power. It's an important issue -- 84% of Americans say "big companies" have too much power over government policy -- and this week John Edwards may be very happy that Obama brought it up.


Barack Obama speaks to a packed crowd in Burlington, Iowa on Saturday.

Photo Credit: Barack Obama Flickr.

Bill Kristol Gets New York Times Op-Ed Slot

Just shoot me. First, it was Sam Tanenhaus, conservative editor of the New York Times Book Review being put in charge of the News of the Week in Review section. That means one conservative will determine how politics,culture and ideas are covered in TWO of the most important sections of the supposedly liberal newspaper of record. Now, says the Huffington Post, the Times is set to announce that Bill Kristol will be writing a weekly op-ed column. That's Bill Kristol ,Fox commentator , editor of the the Murdochian agitprop factory Weekly Standard, George W. Bush's propagandist in chief, co-founder of the Project for a New American Century, relentless promoter of the war in Iraq , ideological bully and thug. This is the man who blamed american liberals for the Khmer Rouge and the Ayatollah Khomeini (!), who will say just about anything, however bizarre or illogical or wild or (I'm guessing) cynical, to push the only ideas in his head: everything bad is the fault of Democrats and never mind the question, war is the answer.

On Iran:The right response is renewed strength--in supporting the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, in standing with Israel, and in pursuing regime change in Syria and Iran. For that matter, we might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait? Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained? That the current regime will negotiate in good faith? It would be easier to act sooner rather than later. Yes, there would be repercussions--and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.

On morning-after contraception: "I don't know, I came into Fox this morning and one of our younger colleagues who works here, a guy just out of college a couple of years, said all his friends in who are still college are very happy about this -- all his guy friends, his male friends who are still in college are happy about this. They have a wild night. Precautions aren't taken. The burden is now totally off them. They tell their girlfriend to go out and get this drug and no problems at all. And I don't think that's a very good thing for the the country."

On Sunni-Shiite hostility in Iraq and desire of shiites to set up a religious state:"pop sociology"

On Terri Schiavo: "After all, we are a 'maturing society,' as the Supreme Court has told us. Perhaps it is time, in mature reaction to this latest installment of what Hugh Hewitt has called a 'robed charade,' to rise up against our robed masters, and choose to govern ourselves. Call it Terri's revolution."

On John Kerry and the Osama videotape: "But the fact remains that Osama bin Laden is notneutral in our election. He is trying to intimidateAmericans into voting against George W. Bush."

What ever happened to meritocracy? For Kristol to get a Times column--after being fired from Time magazine no less -- is as meritocratic as, um, George W. Bush becoming the leader of the free world. A pundit, even a highly ideological one like Kristol, has to be (or seem) right at least some of the time. But what's striking about Kristol is that he's has been wrong about everything! or did I miss the sound of democratic dominoes falling neatly into place all over the Middle East? And it's not as if he's a great prose stylist, either. At least David Brooks can occasionally turn a phrase. Kristol just churns out whatever the argument of the moment happens to be, adds jeers, and knocks off for lunch.

What this hire demonstrates is how successfully the right has intimidated the mainstream media. Their constant demonizing of the New York Times as the tool of the liberal elite worked. (Maybe it also demonstrates that the people in charge of the decision aren't so liberal.) I'm sure we'll hear a lot about the need for balance at the paper -- funny how the Wall Street Journal doesn't feel the need to have even one resident liberal, but fine, let's have balance. Let's have a true leftist on the oped page--someone as far to the left as Kristol is to the right. Noam Chomsky, anyone? (and why does he seem just totally out of bounds but Kristol does not?) Barbara Ehrenreich? Naomi Klein? Susan Faludi? Gary Younge? me?

Why do I think those phone calls will not be coming any time soon?