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Does Prison Harden Criminals? Yes.

For a long time, those on the left who oppose the "tough on crime" policies of the last few decades have argued that the experience of incarceration itself makes those convicted of crime more disposed to future criminality. In prison, one learns from peers how to be a better criminal, makes criminal contacts and also acquires a pemanent record that severely inhibits the possibility of future employment. The conservative argument is that the unpleasant experience of prison serves as a useful deterrent and discourages released prisoners from committing more crime. Both of these frameworks would predict that the effects of incarceration would be amplified by harsher, more restrictive prison conditions. Under the first theory, higher-security confinement would introduce prisoners to more expert criminals, reinforce more anti-social behavior and create a larger stain on one's resume, whereas under the second, the more burdensome the experience of prison itself, the larger the deterence effect

Remarkably, there's very little empirical evidence to suggest which of these two theories are correct. Steven Levitt, along with two coauthors, did find in a 2003 paper that there is a detectable deterrence effect, but there's been no empirical study of the effect of harsher prison conditions on recidivism rates.

Until now. Recently, economists Jesse Shapiro and Keith Chen posted a working paper titled Does prison harden inmates? A discontinuity-based approach . In it, the co-authors use an ingenious bit of statistical sleight of hand to lend empirical support evidence to those of us in the first camp: harsher prisons do make people more likely to commit crimes once they're released.

Here's how the methodology works. They took a data set of approximately 1,000 federal prisoners from the 1980s, whose rearrest rates were tracked for three years. In the federal prison system, each new prisoner is assigned a score of 0-7 for a number of risk factors (prior record, the severity of the crime, etc...) and those points are totaled to compute a score of 0-36. Using that score, the prisoners are sorted into different security categories. For example, prisoners with scores of 0-6 get put into minimum security while those in 7-9 get put into low security, all the way up to high security for those with the highest scores.

Now, the tricky thing about figuring out whether prison conditions affect recidivism rates, is that you can't just cite higher recidivism by those in maximum security, because their increased criminality might be just because they're more hardened criminals, which is why they're in maximum security in the first placea. But Shapiro and Chen exploit the discontinuity between those prisoners with scores around the cut-offs, to show that the prison conditions themselves are likely contributing to more criminal activity after release. If each point on the scale means a criminal is marginally more likely to commit another crime, there's no reason there should be a bigger difference between those with a score of 5 and 6, and those with a score of 6 and 7. But it turns out there are differences, big ones. As you step up from prisoner with a score of 6, who gets placed in minimum security and a prisoner with a score of 7, who gets put in low security, you get a big increase in the recidivism rate. The same effect, though less pronounced happens between those in low security and those in high security.

In their conclusion, Shapiro and Chen write:

By exploiting discontinuities in the assignment of inmates to different security levels, we attempt to isolate the causal impact of prison conditions on recidivism. Our findings suggest that harsher prison conditions cause higher rates of post-release criminal behavior, behavior which is also measurably more violent.

The criminal justice system is both the most dysfunctional aspect of American democracy and the most insulated from reform, thanks to a continuing legacy of the spike in crime in 1970s, and the political benefit of "get tough on crime measures" that exploit racial fears without ever giving them explicit mention.

At some point this has to change. It would be naive to think that facts alone are going to be the undoing of America's prison-industrial complex. But they certainly don't hurt.

"Fixing" the War

This is an old tale. Long forgotten. But like all good political bedtime stories, it's well worth telling again.

Once upon a time, there was a retired general named Paul Van Riper. In 1966, as a young Marine officer and American advisor in Vietnam, he was wounded in action; he later became the first president of the Marine Corps University, retired from the Corps as a Lieutenant General, and then took up the task of leading the enemy side in Pentagon war games.

Over the years, Van Riper had developed into a free-wheeling military thinker, given to quoting Von Clausewitz and Sun-tzu, and dubious about the ability of the latest technology to conquer all in its path. If you wanted to wage war, he thought, it might at least be reasonable to study war seriously (if not go to war yourself) rather than just fall in love with military power. It seemed to him that you took a risk any time you dismissed your enemy as without resources (or a prayer) against your awesome power and imagined your campaign to come as a sure-fire "cakewalk." As he pointed out, "Many enemies are not frightened by that overwhelming force. They put their minds to the problem and think through: how can I adapt and avoid that overwhelming force and yet do damage against the United States?"

As a result, Van Riper took the task of simulated enemy commander quite seriously. He also had a few issues with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's much vaunted "military transformation," his desire to create a sleek, high-tech, agile military that would drive everything before it. He thought the Rumsfeld program added up to just so many "shallow," "fundamentally flawed" slogans. ("There's very little intellectual content to what they say… ‘Information dominance,' ‘network-centric warfare,' ‘focused logistics' -- you could fill a book with all of these slogans.")

In July 2002, he got the chance to test that proposition. At the cost of a quarter-billion dollars, the Pentagon launched the most elaborate war games in its history, immodestly entitled "Millennium Challenge 02." These involved all four services in "17 simulation locations and nine live-force training sites." Officially a war against a fictional country in the Persian Gulf region--but obviously Iraq--it was specifically scripted to prove the efficacy of the Rumsfeld-style invasion that the Bush administration had already decided to launch.

Lt. Gen. Van Riper commanded the "Red Team"--the Iraqis of this simulation-–against the "Blue Team," U.S. forces; and, unfortunately for Rumsfeld, he promptly stepped out of the script. Knowing that sometimes the only effective response to high-tech warfare was the lowest tech warfare imaginable, he employed some of the very techniques the Iraqi insurgency would begin to use all-too-successfully a year or two later.

Such simple devices as, according to the Army Times, using "motorcycle messengers to transmit orders, negating Blue's high-tech eavesdropping capabilities," and "issuing attack orders via the morning call to prayer broadcast from the minarets of his country's mosques." In the process, Van Riper trumped the techies.

"At one point in the game," as Fred Kaplan of Slate wrote in March 2003, "when Blue's fleet entered the Persian Gulf, he sank some of the ships with suicide-bombers in speed boats. (At that point, the managers stopped the game, ‘refloated' the Blue fleet, and resumed play.)" After three or four days, with the Blue Team in obvious disarray, the game was halted and the rules rescripted. In a quiet protest, Van Riper stepped down as enemy commander.

Millennium Challenge 02 was subsequently written up as a vindication of Rumsfeld's "military transformation." On that basis--with no one paying more mind to Van Riper (who, this April, called openly for Rumsfeld's resignation) than to Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki when, in February 2003, he pointed out that hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed to occupy Iraq, the "transformational" invasion was launched--with all the predictably catastrophic results now so widely known.

The Millennium Challenge 02 war games were already underway when, late that July, Sir Richard Dearlove, head of MI6 (the British equivalent of the CIA), returned to London from high-level meetings in Washington to report to Prime Minister Tony Blair and his top officials. In a secret meeting, he told them that the decision for war in Iraq had already been made by the Bush administration and that now, in a memorable phrase, "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

On May 1st, 2005, notes from this meeting, dubbed "the Downing Street Memo," were leaked to the London Sunday Times. Thanks to that memo and other documents, it's now commonly accepted that the Bush administration "fixed" the intelligence around their war of choice. But Lt. Gen. Van Riper's forgotten story should remind us that they also "fixed" the war they were planning to fight.

Between then and now, when it came to Iraq, there wasn't much that wasn't "fixed" in a similar manner. Only recently, James A. Baker's Iraq Study Group report described the way levels of violence in Iraq were grossly underreported by U.S. intelligence officials--in one case, only 93 "attacks or significant acts of violence" being officially recorded on a day when the number was well above 1,000. As the report politely summed up this particular fix-it-up methodology, "Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals."

But here's the thing: The Iraq Study Group, too--like every other mainstream gathering of advisors, officials, or pundits--"fixed" the intelligence. Think of the ISG as the clean-up-crew version of the Blue Team of Millennium Challenge 02. Before they even began, Bush family consigliere Baker and cohorts ensured that, while the ISG would be filled with notable movers and shakers from numerous previous administrations, no one on it, nor any expert "team" advising it would represent the one point of view that a majority of Americans have by now come to support--actual withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq on a set timeline.

You would not, for instance, find retired Lt. Gen. William E. Odom, the former Director of the National Security Agency, who has openly called for the U.S. to "cut and run" from Iraq, on the panel. Despite the report's harsh descriptions of the last three years of failed policy and some perfectly sane negotiation suggestions, it dismissed the idea of such a withdrawal out of hand--because such a dismissal was simply built into the group's very make up.

It turns out, of course, that when you control both sides of a war game or the range of opinion on a panel, you are assured of the results you're going to get. The problem comes when you only control one side of a situation; and when, as American commanders learned in the early days of the Korean War and again in Vietnam, whether due to racism or imperial blindness, you also discount and disrespect your enemies.

Unfortunately for the Bush administration, it turned out that, while you could fix the war games and the intelligence, you couldn't be assured of fixing reality itself, which has a tendency to remain obdurately, passionately, irascibly unconquerable. Yes, you could ignore reality for a while. (The President, when being told a few hard Iraqi truths in 2004 by Col. Derek Harvey, the Defense Intelligence Agency's senior intelligence officer for Iraq, reportedly turned to his aides and asked, "Is this guy a Democrat?") But you couldn't do it forever, not when the Lt. Gen. Van Ripers of Iraq refused to step aside and you weren't capable of removing them; not when you couldn't even figure out, most of the time, who they were. It was then that the fixers first found themselves in a genuine fix, from which none of Washington's movers and shakers have yet been willing to extract themselves.

For more on why the "withdrawal option" was off the table for the Iraq Study Group, check out Michael Schwartz's "Why Withdrawal Is Unmentionable" at Tomdispatch.com.

Health Scare, Democracy Scare

South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson, reportedly recovering after brain surgery Wednesday, reminds Americans of one of the most troublingly undemocratic aspects of this country's uneven and often dysfunctional political process.

If Johnson is incapacitated, the decision about how to fill his seat will not be made by the voters of South Dakota but by one man: the state's Republican governor. And if, as is expected, that governor were to appoint a fellow Republican, control of the upper chamber of the Congress would turn on his whim.

Johnson, a Democrat who is in his second term, became disoriented during a conference call with reporters Wednesday. The normally sharp 59-year-old began stuttering in his responses to questions. He seemed to make a comeback, and returned to his Washington office. There, he appeared again to be sick and was taken by ambulance to the hospital.

Johnson was in critical condition early Thursday morning, after he underwent surgery. Dr. John Eisold, the Capitol physician, described what he saw as "the symptoms of a stroke," although that was not a final diagnosis.

For Democrats, who control the Senate by a 51-49 margin, however, the diagnosis was clear. If Johnson is incapacitated, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, a partisan Republican perhaps best known for signing the most draconian antiabortion law in the land, will be able to appoint a Republican to replace the Democratic Senator.

Rounds has a track record of using appointments to gain partisan advantage. In 2002, after a Democratic member of the South Dakota State Senate died, the Governor put a Republican in his place.

The appointment by Rounds of a Republican to Johnson's seat would saddle the Senate with a 50-50 split. That would give President Dick Cheney, who as the chamber's presiding officer is empowered to break ties, the authority to hand control to the GOP.

Cheney will do so.

Thus, if Democrat Johnson were forced to give up his seat, two Republican partisans, Mike Rounds and Dick Cheney, could overturn the decision of American voters on November 7 to hand control of Congress to the Democrats.

Under South Dakota law, the governor has the power to fill an open Senate seat and, according to South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson, there are no restrictions on such appointments. Thus, Rounds does not have to appoint another Democrat. Nor does he have to call a special election that, presumably, would be won by South Dakota Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth, a popular Democrat.

Though senators must be elected by the people in all states, when they are incapacitated during their terms they can be replaced in a variety of manners. Some states, such as Texas and Wisconsin, hold special elections to fill open seats--thus keeping decisions about who sits in the Senate with the people. Other states, such as South Dakota, allow a gubernatorial designation that is roughly akin to a royal appointment.

The United States should have a uniform system for replacing senators. The system should be democratic, placing authority in the hands of the electorate rather than a single man or woman. Instead, we have a lingering remnant of royalism--gubernatorial appointment--that could in this rare circumstance upset the will not just of the people of one state but of the United States.

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John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism has been hailed by authors and historians Gore Vidal, Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn for its meticulous research into the intentions of the founders and embraced by activists for its groundbreaking arguments on behalf of presidential accountability. After reviewing recent books on impeachment, Rolling Stone political writer Tim Dickinson, writes in the latest issue of Mother Jones, "John Nichols' nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic, The Genius of Impeachment, stands apart. It concerns itself far less with the particulars of the legal case against Bush and Cheney, and instead combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the "heroic medicine" that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com

DeLay Does Dems a Favor

Democrats picked up their 30th seat in the House of Representatives last night. In a major upset, Democrat Ciro Rodriguez defeated Republican incumbent Henry Bonilla in a runoff election in Texas's 23rd district. Rodriguez had previously lost two primaries to conservative Democrat Henry Cuellar, in '04 and '06. The third time around, he managed to defeat a conservative Republican.

In an odd way, Rodriguez has Tom DeLay to thank for his victory. DeLay controversially redrew the district in 2002, booting out 100,000 Hispanics to make it more Republican-friendly, giving Bonilla a safe seat. This summer the Supreme Court found that DeLay's scheme violated the Voting Rights Act and forced the state to include a larger Hispanic population, boosting the Democrats chances. When Bonilla failed to receive 50 percent of the vote in the November 7 election, he moved into a runoff with Rodriguez.

Democrats knew they had a strong pickup opportunity, albeit very much under the radar. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $1.5 million on the race. The National Republican Congressional Committee, by contrast, didn't drop a dime. Bet they regret that now.

Moreover, the election proved just how much the Tom Tancredo wing of the Republican Party turns off Hispanic voters. Bonilla was the only Mexican-American Republican in Congress--and an aggressive proponent of hardline immigration measures. This election, usually supportive Hispanic voters deserted him in droves. "Bonilla's loss last night confirms one of the Bush administration's greatest fears," the Hotline writes, "that a hard-line position on illegal immigration could cause Republicans long-term damage among the growing Latino vote."

Citizen Dreyfuss

Richard Dreyfuss stood before a packed community meeting in Martha's Vineyard last week and asked, "Where do we offer young people the chance to fall in love with America?" He insisted that he was "not speaking for Democrats, Republicans or anything else. [But] as an American who wants to hand to his kids the country he learned about." He then led a discussion on the importance of reviving civics education in our nation's public schools.

The man who once obsessively built clay models of a form that couldn't escape his mind, who warned locals on this same island of a killer shark roaming the waters offshore, who devoted himself to teaching music at the expense of his relationship with his hearing-impaired son... Those fictitious events were part of Dreyfuss's other life as an actor. But it is Citizen Dreyfuss who spoke at the community meeting--living what he calls "the second half of my life."

From the age of 12, Dreyfuss has wanted to do three things: be an actor, be a movie star, and be in politics. He says that four years ago, after he was fired from the London production of The Producers, he decided it was time to retire and do the third thing.

"I've been acting since I'm 12," he says. "I've been famous since I'm 25.... So, I just got really tired of it. After forty years, there are other things you love and want to spend time with.... I decided that instead of waiting to be rich enough to do whatever you want to do, you'll just do whatever you want to do and scramble around for the money."

What he wanted to do was enroll at Oxford University to study democracy. And he did. "I came there with a notion that I had tried to sell to Coca-Cola about ten years previously," he says. "That was to create a two-hour show for kids. The idea was the story of democracy as a biography like a Dickensian tale. Think of David Copperfield as Democracy, and it becomes immediately a more interesting story: born under perilous circumstances, raised without any love and affection--fragile childhood. Held in contempt, dismissed... surprising allies and surprising opponents. And then, out of nowhere almost, he prevails. And he not only prevails he becomes the system of choice--the most popular in England. But he carries within himself the seeds of his own destruction because that's what he sought. And I think that that could be a legitimate two-hour movie for TV, and never stray from the truth. And hook people on that story, and make them want to go even further."

But Dreyfuss found himself drifting towards political writers at Oxford and wanting to be in the classroom. And he was deeply distressed about the state of America's democracy.

"There is no serious place to discuss serious issues any more and that's a serious problem," he argues. "How do you discuss serious issues without the melodrama and all that stuff? Kids grow up thinking that shouting is the only way to discuss politics--that rumination and thinking things through is for sissies."

Dreyfuss says that the Framers felt that the people could be relied upon to maintain our system--they could be sovereign. But being sovereign required a thoughtful, intelligent, active citizenry. Dreyfuss believes that today we know so little about our system; even worse, we are taught so little about how to preserve and strengthen it. As he said in an interview on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, "If the people are sovereign, they are the monarch. Who tutors the monarch? Who trains and teaches the people to be sovereign?" Dreyfuss says that he became convinced "America was going to go by way of all the other leading nations which slipped up, kept hold of its documents which lost any meaning, and simply faded away...."

But at some point during his time at Oxford Dreyfuss found reason for hope. "I realized that all of the institutions are there," he says. "And it just takes the revivification of one or two of these places and the rest will follow." His original idea for the TV show began to morph into a civics curriculum--which he says is the teaching of the tools that are necessary to maintain our system of government--"the internal combustion engine and not the Porsche and not the Chevy." He says that these tools are "pre-partisan," and he defines them as reason, logic, clarity of thought, dissent, debate, and civility. Dreyfuss says that civility was the one "I thought I had to bury because I knew it was the biggest buzzword." But civility, he insists, is "the oxygen that democracy requires. Democracy is our willingness to share political space with those with whom we disagree. We need to share it with respect--letting [people] finish their sentences, not patronizing them, thinking things through, getting to know people. Otherwise we strangle on incivility."

Last summer, Dreyfuss and his longtime friend and Martha's Vineyard educator, Robert Tankard, spoke with the island's Superintendent, James Weiss, about teaching a new civics curriculum. They wanted parents, teachers, students, historians, and others to collaborate on it, use the Martha's Vineyard school system as a laboratory, and then offer it as a model for a national civics revival. Weiss said that if they could generate interest in the local community he would implement the classes.

"I never heard such a great offer in my life," Dreyfuss says. "It's the difference between walking and talking." And that's how Citizen Dreyfuss found himself talking civics with the community last week.

Dreyfuss spoke about the risk of doing nothing. Without doing the rigorous work, the training, and learning "the tools of democracy, we leave the running of our system to happenstance and luck. We can kiss it goodbye in the lives of my children and yours."

Dreyfuss found a receptive crowd. On the importance of civility an elderly man said, "You were born with two eyes, two ears, one nose, and one mouth. Use them in those proportions." Others complained of people "making up facts in order to win arguments." Or "bashing others to score political points instead of working to solve problems." They felt that civics education needed to start younger so that by the time people finished high school they were practicing citizenship rather than learning it. Historian Gordon Wood told the group, "We are a nation of immigrants.... What holds us together? It can't be Starbucks and McDonald's. That's why we go back to the Founders--equality, liberty, self-government.... If younger people don't know [this foundation], they will lose any sense of collectivity, identity as Americans." Sociologist James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, also participated in the meeting and called the teaching of civics "one leg of many in our culture to revive and renew us." A retired principal spoke of the obstacles created by No Child Left Behind--the forced focus on reading and math, and the consequent cuts to music, arts and other programs. "To be successful, we need to think of the whole child again," he said.

There was another target on the mind of Dreyfuss and many of the citizens at the meeting: the media, and especially television. (Dreyfuss calls television "possibly the worst thing that ever happened to us. I think it shortened our brains. I think it created road rage. I think it killed rumination. I think it allows us to think that we are discussing serious public issues when we're not. I think that it has become the place of serious public discussion of issues but it isn't. And it just passes for that.") He said that television is where we go for news information. It delivers information through image (rather than text) instantaneously, leaving no time for rumination. He cited 9/11 coverage as an example--the instantaneous images of the Twin Towers replayed over and over again--leaving room for nothing other than feelings of "grief and revenge." Dreyfuss believes television has caused us to reinterpret what makes a good politician (the image being more important than the text). He called people in the industry "like addicts--denying that a problem exists." Meanwhile, he says, we accept the medium as offering the same level of reflection and insight as reading and rumination. There was general agreement that we have lost our way in teaching young people to be critical thinkers and sort through the information industry.

As the meeting ended, Dreyfuss asked: "Are you in favor of teaching civics in American public schools?" He called for the nays and there was silence. Dreyfuss allowed it to linger. Finally, he asked for the yeas, and hundreds of people responded with enthusiasm. The contrast was striking, and Dreyfuss had clearly drawn on his skillful sense of timing to orchestrate the moment. Dreyfuss and Tankard had achieved their objective of demonstrating strong public support. Participants were invited to attend a follow-up session at a local high school the next day where the focus would shift to developing a pilot program.

After the meeting Superintendent Weiss said that there is an eighteen-month window of opportunity to revamp civics education on the island. The standardized testing in social studies for the state will be decided during that time period and curricula will be revised. He said that eighteen months was "just enough time" to succeed.

The next morning, Dreyfuss was pleased with the conference but also tired and frustrated as he reflected on the contributing factors that he perceives as threatening our system of government--a system he undeniably loves and is passionate about. He railed at a media that fails to demand the truth on the gravest matters of our time ("You want someone to say [to the President], 'Excuse me, you're full of shit, and answer the question.' And they don't do that"). He decried the infighting of the Democratic party ("Democrats eat their young") and the failure of the left to articulate a compelling case that people can rally around. He denounced Republicans for not being straight with people about what they stand for and why. He said that America has broken the hearts of young people and caused cynicism to be rampant among them. Dreyfuss believes that civics--despite what he calls its boring reputation--is the way young people can begin to have "a love affair with America."

Whether or not one agrees with Dreyfuss's critique of political culture, one thing is clear: He's not only talking the talk, he's also walking the walk--and demonstrating the kind of committed citizenship he espouses. How many Oscar-winners walk away from their profession to develop curricula ("The only time you'll ever see me in a movie or anything like that is when you know they paid me a billion dollars....")? To Dreyfuss, "representative democracy is as thrilling as anything Charles Dickens wrote and Alfred Hitchcock ever shot." It is both a thriller and a romance, and offers a narrative with a distinct beginning, middle and end. The beginning and the middle are history--and to Dreyfuss, the still open-ending begs this question: "What country do we want to hand to our kids?"

With reporting from Martha's Vineyard by Gregory Kaufmann, a Washington, DC-based journalist and screenwriter.

Rummifying the War on Terror

You gotta give Donald Rumsfeld this. He's doing his best to cover his behind as he walks out the door. First he dropped a "snowflake" memo, obtained by the New York Times, admitting that the war in Iraq was "not working," and exploring possible exit strategies.

Now he's conceding that the US is not engaged in a "war on terror," even though he previously claimed we were.

Here's what he told Cal Thomas yesterday: "I don't think I would have called it the war on terror. I don't mean to be critical of those who have. Certainly, I have used the phrase frequently. Why do I say that? Because the word 'war' conjures up World War II more than it does the Cold War. It creates a level of expectation of victory and an ending within 30 or 60 minutes of a soap opera. It isn't going to happen that way. Furthermore, it is not a ‘war on terror.' Terror is a weapon of choice for extremists who are trying to destabilize regimes and (through) a small group of clerics, impose their dark vision on all the people they can control. So ‘war on terror' is a problem for me."

Such words would have been heretical to Rumsfeld a year ago. Now he practically sounds like a Democrat. What's next? Is Rummy going to support Obama in '08?

Gore v. Nader

Can Al Gore ever escape him? No, I don't mean Bill Clinton; I'm talkingabout Ralph Nader. In 2000, the Nader vote was the margin of victory inFlorida, and thus, a Gore presidency, and therefore an alternativereality much less grim than the one we now face. But that is the past.In the present, they are at it again.

Gore's global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, has been atriumph for the issue itself and Gore's reputation. It has beenshort-listed for the Oscar's documentary category, as it should be. Butwait, there's more. Also on the short list is a dark horse candidate, An Unreasonable Man, a documentaryabout the political life of (natch) Ralph Nader.

So here we are six years later faced with the potential of another Gorev. Nader race. Will Nader siphon off enough votes to cost Gore yetanother victory? Given the makeup ofthe 5,830 Academy voters, largely older and significantly Jewish, willFlorida be the deciding battleground?

This is crucial because many believe Gore's Oscar campaign--Lenoand Oprah already--may be the first primary in his 2008 presidentialrun.

What terrible irony if Nader cost him the win once again.

Kucinich: Democrats Must Honor Mandate

Dennis Kucinich is running for President again and, yes, he would love to cure what ails the United States.

But, first, he wants to cure what ails his own Democratic Party.

The Democratic disease, he says, is caution regarding the antiwar position it should be taking.

"Democrats were swept into power on November 7 because of widespread voter discontent with the war in Iraq," says Kucinich. "Instead of heeding those concerns and responding with a strong and immediate change in policies and direction, the Democratic Congressional leadership seems inclined to continue funding the perpetuation of the war."

That is not the typical opening salvo for a presidential primary bid.

But Kucinich is not a typical campaigner for the presidency. His aggressively antiwar run for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination captured the imagination of many activists but only won around 70 of the 2,162 delegates he would have needed to secure the nod. He remained in the race to the end, however, and left in place a network of supporters across the country that evolved into the effective activist group Progressive Democrats in America.

As the 2008 race approached and sentiments regarding the war soured, attention on the part of the growing mass of antiwar Democrats focused on the potential candidacy of Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who opposed the war from the start and was the first senator to call for a withdrawal timeline. But Feingold decided after the November 7 election to remain in the Senate, where he will chair key subcommittees on the Constitution and foreign relations.

So Kucinich saw an opening to run a message-driven campaign on the war issue. The Congressman, who was re-elected with 66 percent of the vote in November by Cleveland-area voters who appear to be comfortable with their representative making longshot presidential bids, says he will take a blunt antiwar message to the campaign trail and to every debate.

In particular, he will challenge Democrats who have voted to keep funding the war. Kucinich argues that Congress should provide the money for an orderly withdrawal of US troops from Iraq--one that assures the safety of the soldiers and the smoothest transition--but that it should not continue to meet Department of Defense demands for continued funding of what looks more and more like a permanent military presence in the Middle East country.

"Unless and until Congress decides to force a new direction by cutting off funds, the United States will continue to occupy Iraq and have a destabilizing presence in the Middle East region," argues Kucinich.

Can Kucinich win more votes in 2008 than he did in 2004? That's an open question. Concern about the war runs deeper now, and frustration with the Democratic Party's failure to develop a clear stance on an exit strategy runs higher. But there may be another candidate who, while not as pure or precise as Kucinich on the issue, can point to a record of opposing the war from the start and to his support for a redeployment timeline.

Like Kucinich, this other candidate has a name that a lot of Americans still have trouble pronouncing. But, if the media frenzy that surrounded Barack Obama's trip to New Hampshire last weekend was any indication, it's a good bet that Obama will be given more opportunities to introduce himself and deliver his message than the Congressman from Ohio.

That said, Kucinich's presence in the debates could well sharpen the discussion among Democrats regarding the war. And as Kucinich rightly points out, that sharpening is needed.

Indeed, Kucinich argues, the fate of the Democratic Party could rest on the question of how it responds to the desire of Americans to bring the troops home.

"On November 7, 2006, the American public voted for a new direction for our Iraq policy. That direction is -- out. As Democrats prepare to take the majority for the first time in twelve years, Democrats now have the responsibility to act on the overwhelming mandate issued by the American public," says the congressman. "Will that new direction mean an exit from Iraq? Because, if not, America will be held hostage by the skyrocketing cost of the war in Iraq even as President Bush leaves office at 11:59 am on January 20, 2009. And, the voters will not forget who let them down. "

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John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism has been hailed by authors and historians Gore Vidal, Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn for its meticulous research into the intentions of the founders and embraced by activists for its groundbreaking arguments on behalf of presidential accountability. After reviewing recent books on impeachment, Rolling Stone political writer Tim Dickinson, writes in the latest issue of Mother Jones, "John Nichols' nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic, The Genius of Impeachment, stands apart. It concerns itself far less with the particulars of the legal case against Bush and Cheney, and instead combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the "heroic medicine" that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com

When “Withdrawal” Is Not Withdrawal

Here's a riddle: When is withdrawal not actually withdrawal? The answer: when the bulk of the troops don't actually come home.

That seems to be the scenario envisioned by the Iraq Study Group when they recommended last week that the bulk of the US combat troops could leave Iraq by early 2008. According to the New York Times, frontline combat troops represent only 23 percent of the 140,000 US troops in Iraq.

"An analysis of the current numbers and tasks of American forces suggests that it will prove difficult to drop far below 100,000 by early 2008, and that 70,000 or more troops might have to stay for a considerable time," the Times reports.

That doesn't sound like much of an exit plan. Conventional wisdom held that the Baker-Hamilton commission would allow the Bush Administration to withdraw US troops without calling it withdrawal. In fact, just the opposite may occur.