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The Nation

A No-Issues Contest

"We're in a war of ideas!" So declared Bill Barry, chairman of the Nashua, New Hampshire, Democrats, when he enthusiastically introduced Senator John Edwards at a campaign rally as the fellow who most deserved to win the primary in two days.

Barry was wrong.

There is no war of ideas occurring in the New Hampshire primary. There is barely a skirmish. The four top contenders--Senator John Kerry, former Governor Howard Dean, retired General Wesley Clark, and Edwards--each bemoan the influence of special interests in Washington (particularly its impact upon the Medicare prescription drug legislation), call for universal health care coverage, praise the potential of renewable and sustainable energy, promise to reverse George W. Bush's environmental policies, support abortion rights, and vow to de-unilateralize foreign policy. There are policy disagreements. Dean wants to repeal all of Bush's tax cuts; Kerry and Edwards want to dump only those that benefit wealthy taxpayers. Dean reminds his supporters that he opposed handing Bush the authority to invade Iraq while Kerry and Edwards voted to grant Bush that power. Yet on the question of what to do now in Iraq, the four candidates agree on the need to internationalize the occupation and try to coax other nations to contribute more troops and money. Representative Dennis Kucinich has tried to provoke a debate on two key matters by claiming he alone has a plan to replace U.S. troops in Iraq with United Nations forces within 90 days--though the U.N. has yet to indicate it is willing to do that--and by calling for universal, single-payer, not-for-profit health care. But given his in-the-basement standing in the polls, Kucinich has not created any back-and-forth on these topics.

This is a campaign of impressions and identities. The goal: find the right knight to vanquish the evil king. In on-the-stump performance, Dean and Edwards have been far better campaigners than Kerry and Clark. But that might not be enough for them to trip up Kerry the frontrunner.

Of the major contenders, Edwards has the best delivery and the best thematic approach. With passion and sincerity, he critiques the existence of "two Americas"--one for the well-to-do families that have access to quality health care, benefit from the existing tax code, and send their children to good schools; one for everyone else. Under the rubric of turning the "two Americas" into one, Edwards, the son of a mill worker, assails Washington lobbyists, empathizes with middle-class families squeezed by economic pressures, vows to restore America's image abroad, and advocates policies that can return hope to stressed-out, low- and middle-income families. And he has the healthiest glow of all the candidates--he practically shines--and the best gestures, which come from his days as a trial lawyer. This pitch neatly weaves in his own personal up-from-the-working-class history. He has only been doing his "two Americas" routine since early January, and it may well be responsible for his second-place finish in Iowa.

Edwards has put together an attractive package. Is it flying off the shelf? The election will tell. His events appear to have the most uncommitted voters in attendance. That may signal movement in his direction. Or it might merely mean that the undecideds already have enough information on Dean, Kerry, and Clark and are giving Edwards a last look before rendering a final judgment.

Dean also has improved his offering to the voters. He has tried to counter the Scream Heard Around the World with one-liners ("I am so excited to be here, I could just scream"). And he highlights his command of policy. At a campaign event emphasizing women's issues, Dean spoke authoritatively on Title IX (he opposes efforts to cut this funding for athletic programs for schoolgirls), early child development (he described a program he initiated in Vermont to help at-risk children at birth), and stem cells research (he noted his support for full federal funding). He blasted the Bush administration's proposal to increase the work obligations for women on welfare ("We call it the Leave Every Child Unsupervised At Home Bill"), and he called for boosting the minimum wage, observing that such a move would disproportionately assist women. He noted that Barbara Ehrenreich's book, Nickel and Dimed, which chronicles the travails of low-income workers, ought to be "required reading" for every presidential candidate.

At this meeting, Dean came across as a smart, sure-footed, if a bit wonkish, liberal, but one who turned policy into programs in Vermont. And he continues to excite his core voters with his talk of reviving idealism and using people power to "take back the country" from special interests. He points to his early opposition to the Iraq war as proof he has the courage of his convictions, but he does not dwell on his war stance.

On Sunday, the Dean campaign maintained that its tracking polls showed him within a few points of Kerry, even though the Boston Globe had Kerry up by 23 points. At Dean rallies and events, his fans appear to be unbowed, undaunted, and still revved up--far more so than the voters who attend campaign events for other candidates. There are two basic questions about Dean's prospects. First, how big is his core? Is it 18 percent, 23 percent? More? Less? Second, if it is not big enough to propel him into first place or a close second, does Dean have any reach beyond these die-hard Deaniacs? He seems to be the candidate about whom Democratic voters have the strongest feelings--for or against. That may limit his ability to attract voters who are not already on his side.

Kerry may well be benefiting from an opposite dynamic. He does not excite as Dean does (or seduce as effectively as Edwards). But he presents a more conventional--and perhaps--more comfortable choice for New Hampshire Democrats. Unlike Dean, Kerry faces no questions about his ability to handle national security matters. Unlike Edwards, Kerry faces no questions about his overall experience in government. In fact, his years of experience are written into his sad-dog face. Maybe it is due to these reasons that Kerry has wider--though not deeper--support than Dean and Edwards.

It is not because of his performance on the campaign trail. When it comes to being a candidate, Kerry cannot do better than a B-plus. It's as if there is a Kerry wall. He says all the right things for a Democrat--but without any magic or music. He slams HMOs, insurance companies, Big Energy firms, pharmaceutical manufacturers. He can deliver dramatic lines, such as, "I know something about aircraft carriers for real." Still, he does not connect as much as a frontrunner should. Is it because his speechifying skills have never been honed? At a gathering of Democratic officials, activists, and fundraisers at Nashua on Saturday night, Kerry criticized Bush for doing little on jobs and health care, and he declared, "It's not only not mission accomplished; it's mission not even legitimately attempted." He certainly could have punched this point more effectively. And when Fox News' Chris Wallace, during a televised interview, asked Kerry, who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, about his position on gay marriage, Kerry repeatedly said, "I'm against marriage." Wallace had to remind Kerry to say gay marriage.

These examples don't adequately describe Kerry's limitations. He may well be a thoughtful, intelligent person--and a war hero/jock. At a charity hockey event in Manchester, Kerry played on a team against former Boston Bruins all-stars, and acquitted himself quite well. (Two goals, no hat trick.) And his campaign has been handing out thousands of copies of a 1998 issue of American Windsurfer magazine, which features Kerry on the cover and includes dramatic photos of him in a wet-suit and skipping over the waves. But he still needs a mojo transplant. At a rally with Senator Ted Kennedy at Nashua High School on Sunday, Kerry raised his voice and assailed the Medicare prescription drug bill as a $139 billion sop to the drug companies. He whacked Bush for weakening clean air and clean water legislation. He assailed Washington lobbyists. He said he would have renewable and alternative fuels provide 20 percent of the nation's energy by 2020. And he observed that Bush has overseen the "most arrogant, inept, reckless, and ideological foreign policy" in American history. But he did not ignite the crowd. The audience was supportive--but not as jazzed as it could have (or should have) been. Here was Kerry's chance to wow them completely. He just cannot do it. [UPDATE: On Monday evening, in his second-to-last campaign rally, Kerry, appearing in the gym on Pinkerton Academy in Derry, kicked out an A-minus performance. He was loose and energetic, he looked happy, he effectively engaged with questioners in the crowd.]

Nevertheless, Kerry is at the head of the pack. At the start of the 2004 campaign, political observers handicapped Kerry as the frontrunner because he was something of a default candidate: a war hero with positions in sync with most Democrats, a grownup, and a good fundraiser. That defaultness did not serve him well in the early stretch, when he lost the passion primary and the money primary to Dean. But it may be partly responsible for his resurgence in Iowa and New Hampshire. He is not a bold pick; he is a safe pick. Is it possible that voters craving an anti-Bush champion are responding to the idea of John Kerry more than the actual John Kerry? If so, how far can this relationship go?

Clark, like Kerry, has had a tough time making good on his potential. He essentially had New Hampshire to himself for a week--who counts Senator Joseph Lieberman?--and there are no signs he was able to exploit that opportunity. He entered the race late in September and--no surprise--he has been performing like a candidate who only has four months of experience. At that gathering of leading state Democrats, Clark delivered a speech that failed to rouse the audience. Too much of it was devoted to explaining why he now is a Democrat. His party credentials have been challenged by the other candidates. After all, he voted for Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. But it is too far into the game for Clark to be defending himself on this front. And he did so with little eloquence. Arguing that the Democratic Party, not the GOP, is the party of family values, Clark remarked, "family values are what it takes to have a family." He also got worked up and exclaimed, "We've got to take out that president." He can speak effectively on matters of national security, but he has not yet figured out a larger sales pitch.

Clark has had trouble dealing with the inevitable bumps, such as when ABC News' Peter Jennings asked him to disavow filmmaker Michael Moore, who while endorsing Clark called Bush a military deserter. (Jennings described this as a reckless charge, but Bush appears to have ducked out of his National Guard service for a year, and he has never adequately explained all the missing time.) In response to Jennings--and subsequent interviewers--Clark noted Moore had the right to have any opinion he wanted (apparently about anything). That sounded more like a dodge than a defense.

What's driving the contest in New Hampshire is not issues. That is no shocker. The policy differences are not pronounced, and elections are usually more about the seekers than their ideas. One idea is paramount now: find the guy who can dethrone Bush. Kerry may end up the choice in New Hampshire because his perceived liabilities are less tangible--or less worrisome--than those of Dean and Edwards. Politics, after all, is a relativist endeavor. And fortunately for Kerry, in this race the campaign performances of the candidates might be a small factor. On Tuesday, the contest will likely turn not on what voters feel about the candidates but on what they think they should feel about them.

DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com

Oligarchs for Bush

Do you have 250 family members, friends, associates, and colleagues who can afford to give $2,000 to President Bush?

On January 22, the Washington Post reported that there's now "whispered talk on Wall Street of a new category of super-fundraiser, those able to bundle $500,000 or more" for President George W. Bush's re-election campaign.

These super-fundraiser would supercede the Rangers (who raise a paltry $200,000 for the President) as the measurement of ultimate loyalty to the Bush White House. The campaign denies it will name the new category but it was just too tempting for reformers to leave alone.

So, the Public Campaign Action Fund, a nonpartisan campaign finance reform organization, has launched a contest to help name the category for Bush-Cheney Inc. (And I've agreed to help select the five finalists from which the public will choose the winner.)

Click here to submit your suggestion. Each finalist receives a Fat Cat T-Shirt, a poster and the satisfaction of helping raise public awareness of the brazen corruption of this Administration. Bring those names on.

The Populists of New Hampshire

There is the Angry Populist, the Calm Populist, the Polite Populist, the Executive Populist, and the Radical Populist. That's who racing across New Hampshire chasing Democratic and independent voters in the days before the first presidential primary of 2004. Oh, there's also Joe Lieberman.

Senator John Kerry, the leader in the polls, is the angry one. He doesn't hoot or holler. But he declares, "It is time for us to get angry...and restore real democracy to the United States." By that he means he wants to rid Washington of the money-grubbing special interests out. And when he has not been pushing that mission, he has been talking about his Vietnam days. On Friday, he appeared with Vietnam veterans at a rally in Manchester and told war stories. One of his television ads showed a war buddy of his talking about Kerry: "There's a sense after Vietnam that every day is extra....That you have to do what's right." And the spot included video of Kerry as a soldier in Nam. Kerry is, by nature, cautiously passionate. A little anger is not a bad idea for him; it allows him to emote, which has not been his strong suit as a candidate. Heading into the final weekend, his strategy remained obvious one: talk about your record, bash George W. Bush for catering to corporate interests, and, most importantly, keep plodding ahead and don't screw up.

Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean is now the calm one. He is more interesting to watch than Kerry, for he has the more difficult challenge. He has had to rejigger his approach. That has entailed burnishing his image as a responsible and straight-talking governor of many accomplishments while also maintaining his insurgent take-back-America message. At a rally on Friday night, he pulled it off. Speaking at Keene Middle School to an overflowing crowd of about 1500 Dean enthusiasts--a group of all ages--he nailed his case. With a calm, steady and firm delivery, Dean noted the qualities that would make him a good president: he is willing to stand up for what he believes, whether it is popular or not (the proof: his early opposition to the Iraq war and the No Child Left Behind act, his support of civil unions for gays and lesbians); he has experience and can deliver on health care (the proof: his success in Vermont); and, unlike other politicians, he tells the truth.

To prove that last point, Dean noted that his Democratic opponents say that America can have a middle-class tax cut and expanded education funding, kindergarten through college and expanded health care coverage. No way, Dean said, adding, "You know why 50 percent of Americans don't vote? It's because politicians talk like that before every election." But, he added, when these pols enter office they cannot deliver on such promise. "You can't win an election on promises," Dean asserted. He, on the other hand, is willing to acknowledge the hard truth: "You can't have everything." Someone has to tell the people that. And Dean maintained he is the only candidate prepared to do so--to balance the budget and be realistic in terms of new social programs. He said his budget would have room for expanding health insurance, a program for early child development, and an alternative energy initiative.

In striking this stance, Dean was reminiscent of Paul Tsongas, the deceased Democratic senator from Massachusetts, who in 1992 ran for president hailing balanced budgets and accusing a little-known governor named Bill Clinton of pandering to voters by proposing various spending initiatives and a middle-class tax cut. Tsongas won the New Hampshire primary. He flopped after that.

But Dean had more to offer his Deaniacs than warmed-over, tell-the-ugly-truth centrism. He blasted George W. Bush for "shoveling money...into the pockets of the pharmaceutical companies," and he complained that "all the things that happen in Washington happen for the benefit of corporations and special interests." Dean added, "We want the country back." And he spoke of his campaign as a movement designed not merely to elect him but to empower his supporters. The spin is, he said, that "this is a campaign of anger. This is a campaign of hope....I don't want people to believe in me. I want you to believe in yourselves.....The biggest lie that people like me tell people like you is that if you vote for me, I'll solve your problems. The truth is, the power to change this country is in your hands....On Tuesday, you have the power to change the Democratic Power."

Dean exuded a quiet strength. He came across as determined and deliberate. His talk effectively blended the resume portion of his pitch and his idealistic call to arms. He got the mix right, as he positioned himself as a tough-love kind of maverick who could combine the message of Paul Tsongas and that of Paul Wellstone. And his supporters loved it. They cheered and applauded. They were pumped up. It was as if The Shriek had never left his throat. It was clear that Dean still had his ardent believers. But at this point Dean probably needs more than the revived enthusiasm of already-committed Deaniacs to win in New Hampshire or finish near the top. Can performances like this one undo the damage of Iowa? Has his appeal reached a natural limit? Dean and his followers--many of whom do appear to believe they are part of a movement--will know soon.

Senator John Edwards of North Carolina is the Polite Populist. On Friday, he visited the Page Belting company in Concord. It was there, almost a year earlier, "where people first saw the Edwards magic," one of his aides told me. She was referring to a session in which Edwards met with some of the firm's employees and the workers became teary while discussing the economic hardships they and their families faced.

Edwards was back now to have a similar discussion with two dozen Page workers. But this time they were surrounded by 150 members of the press. Edwards reeled off his "two Americas" speech, which he has refined to a smooth and seamless indictment of Bush's Washington. There is one America where people get all the health care they need; then there's the America with a health care system that doesn't work for many and is controlled by insurance companies and HMOs. There is one America where affluent communities have wonderful public schools; one America where the schools are troubled. "We shouldn't have two public school systems," Edwards remarked. There are "two governments" in the nation's capital: "one for the insiders...whatever is left is for you."

Edwards did not raise his voice. He did not show anger. This son of a mill worker who became a millionaire superlawyer displayed earnest indignation, quiet outrage. He adopted a "get this" tone. He told the employees, "What goes on in Congress is that you have the lobbyists for the big drug companies and they're all over the place and they come up to members of Congress and say, 'Can you help us on the [Medicare prescription drug] bill?'...And then [the members] says, 'Are we going to see you at the fundraiser tonight."

The Page Belting workers did not respond with "amens." Instead, they knowingly nodded their heads--especially when Edwards referred to predatory credit card companies that sock it to consumers who don't read the fine print. He came armed with supposed solutions, such as banning campaign contributions from corporate lobbyists. "The Washington lobbyists are taking your democracy away from you," he commented, "and we ought to stop it."

Edwards never got mean or dark. He loaded his pitch with feel-good, can-do optimism, insisting his message is "based on politics of hope, based on the politics of what is possible." He noted, "You deserve a president who can make you feel good about the future, good about yourselves again." Then Edwards left in his campaign bus, dubbed the "Real Solutions Express"--which is not to be confused with Kerry's bus, "The Real Deal Express." Will Edwards' kinder, gentler populism play? He does have one heckuva pleasant and persuasive manner. New Hampshire voters--and Democrats elsewhere--looking for populism with a smile and a down-home drawl will be tempted.

At a health care policy forum at the Palace Theater in Manchester, retired General Wesley Clark shared his views on health care with several hundred medical professionals. It was odd that he had to read his remarks. At this point in the contest--four days before the New Hampshire primary--a Democratic candidate should be able to talk about health care in his sleep. Clark began weakly, referring to his own brushes with the medical system: tonsillitis at the age of 3, appendicitis at 14, several gun shot wounds when he was in Vietnam. ("I think they hit me one more time, while I was crawling away.") He noted that he had delivered health care to soldiers and their families, tossed off automatic rhetoric about health care as a "family value," and decried greedy drug companies. It was standard fare, and the audience seemed less than engaged. A senior campaign aide for Senator Lieberman, was standing next to me and chortling about Clark's underwhelming performance.

Then--like a good general--Clark briskly ran through a four-step program. Number one: if elected president, he would issue an executive order that would allow the reimportation of cheaper drugs from Canada and elsewhere. "Interesting," murmured the Lieberman aide. Number two: direct the secretary of Health and Human Services to audit all drug companies to see if these companies had used government funding to develop drugs and not shared subsequent profits. "Wow," the Lieberman aide said softly. Numbers three and four were less surprising: introduce legislation that would permit the U.S. government to bargain with pharmaceutical companies over the costs of drugs, and end barriers that keep generic drugs off the market.

Clark also outlined his plan for expanding health insurance. Yeah, yeah--all candidates have a plan. More significantly, he claimed to be a non-politician who was not merely willing to swing away at the drug companies on Day One but who also had specific ideas on how to do so. Here was a practical populist.

Representative Dennis Kucinich was the non-practical populist. He hit the stage after Clark. He slammed the other candidates for talking about health insurance, not health care. Speaking without notes, he made a passionate and effective case for a single-payer health care system that would provide extensive services for everyone and rid medicine of insurance companies and HMOs. "My question to you in New Hampshire is," he said, "'how much change do you really want?' Do you really want to be free of...insurance companies...and pharmaceutical companies?" He was met with shouts of approval from the health care professionals in the theater. Perhaps that was because he had delivered an assertive and sincere presentation without becoming shrill. It was Kucinich at his best. He was a facts-based visionary. But it may well be that New Hampshire does not want as much change as he is offering. His go-the-distance brand of populism has yet to win him more than a percentage point or two of support.

As for Lieberman, he delivered an impressive briefing at the health care forum. It was chockfull of detailed and sensible-sounding policy proposals: a Medikids insurance program for children, health care centers in elementary schools, a Medichoice program to provide affordable health insurance coverage to adults, an executive order to reverse Bush's decision severely limiting federal funding of stem cells research. But there was not one mention of drug companies, HMOs, or insurance firms. (Remember Lieberman is from Connecticut.) It was all policy, no populism. He is the odd-man out in the race.

Lieberman aside--and he may soon well be--populism is the rage in New Hampshire. Dean is probably correct when he boasts he was the first candidate in this year's race to crusade against special interests. Now an assault on the rigged ways of Washington is part of almost everyone's routine. It has become de rigeur. Even if the populism adopted by the leading candidates is limited, Dean can take credit for having changed the party, or at least its 2004 debate. The question is, will New Hampshire voters credit him for having done so?

DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.

A Dud of a Debate

The New Hampshire Democratic presidential debate was supposed to be the Super Bowl of the primary season face-offs.

It was--only in that it was long and dull and marked by uninspiring performances, which sadly is often what happens in the NFL championship match. Unfortunately, this event lacked interesting commercials.

As the two hours dragged by, many of the 400 journalists in the media watching room--a gymnasium on the campus of St. Anselm College--rolled their eyes and checked their watches. It was five days before the first primary of 2004, and expectations had been high. The surprising results in Iowa had injected additional drama into the New Hampshire contest. Could Dean, the heretofore Internet-fueled powerhouse of the race, recover from his third-place finish and the shriek heard around the world? Could John Kerry, the come-from-behind victor of Iowa, exploit his Midwest win and outperform the rest of the pack in his native New England? How would Wesley Clark, the born-recently Democrat who had skipped Iowa, fare against the battle-scarred veterans of the caucuses? Could John Edwards, the sunnier candidate, outshine his rivals?

Political journalists--myself included--thought this debate could be the decisive moment in a decisive contest.

We were wrong.

Several hours before the debate, I ran into a Clark adviser at a Manchester restaurant. What's the General's goal for tonight? I asked. "To do okay," the Clark lieutenant deadpanned. "Seriously," I replied. He countered, "I am being serious."

It was as if all the candidates were aiming for the same bar: okayness. In part, that was due to the debate's structure: four journalists asking questions of the candidates that permitted no give and take between the contenders. It was also due to what has become known as the Lesson of Iowa: going negative hurts. Few elbows were thrown. No spitballs were hurled. Candidates stuck to their stump speeches. Edwards noted that people are "hungry for change in America. They're hungry for change in Washington, D.C. And the truth is, the truth is, that I'm somebody who's been in Washington long enough to see what's wrong with it and how it needs to be changed." Kerry maintained he wanted to take on "special interests" and that he had national security credentials that would allow him to go toe-to-toe with Bush. Joseph Lieberman stressed his "values" and his enthusiastic support for the war in Iraq. Clark pushed his experience as an executive and professed his fealty to Democratic Party principles. Dennis Kucinich blasted the Nafta trade accord and insisted he was the most antiwar candidate, claiming his plan to end the U.S. occupation in Iraq could bring American troops home within 90 days and noting that Dean would let U.S. forces remain there perhaps for years.

Dean had the most to prove--or disprove. He tried to reposition himself as an ex-governor who has demonstrated the ability to get things done (such as expanding health care coverage to most Vermont residents and balancing the state's budget) and who has the courage to tell inconvenient truths and stand up for principles even if they are unpopular (such as opposing the war and backing civil unions for gays and lesbians). He stayed in control. There was little fiery talk of taking back America with an insurgent campaign.

Policy differences among the candidates were not pronounced. There was disagreement on tax cuts. (Kerry was for middle-class tax cuts included in the Bush tax cuts package; Dean argued these tax cuts were bogus.) A few uncomfortable moments occurred. ABC News anchor Peter Jennings asked Al Sharpton about the Federal Reserve Board and his views on monetary policy. Sharpton replied with a rambling answer about the International Monetary Fund. (Even Sharpton was not his usual zinger-filled self. He only got off one good line the whole debate: "I wanted to say to Governor Dean, don't be hard on yourself about hooting and hollering. If I had spent the money you did and got 18 percent, I'd still be in Iowa hooting and hollering." But by Sharptonian standards, this was not Grade A material.) Edwards, the onetime superlawyer, botched a question about the Defense of Marriage Act, mischaracterizing it completely while stumbling through his reply.

But mostly the candidates met the Clark standard and did okay. No one came across as commanding or daring. No one produced a memorable moment. Kerry, who leads in the polls, did little to enhance or endanger his frontrunner status. It is doubtful that New Hampshire voters, who have been bombarded with campaign ads and saturated media coverage, learned a lot more about the seven alternatives. The most dramatic moment of the evening came before the debate when Kerry arrived and joined a parade organized by the firefighters union, which is supporting him. With a bagpipes and drums corps leading the way, Kerry, mobbed by fans, marched with several hundred pumped-up men down a hill, and they ran smack into a horde of students for Dean, who tried to stand their ground and slow the Kerry procession. Bodies collided, signs went flying. (Have you ever been crushed between a beefy cameraman and a beefy firefighter wearing a kilt and carrying a bass drum? I have.) This was the only excitement of the night. The firefighters and Kerry did make it past the Deaniacs. And, yes, I spotted a fair number of piercings.

The post-debate activity was hardly this thrilling. As is customary, reporters gathered in a designated "Spin Room" to hear what candidates and their surrogates had to say about the debate. Often these instant postmortems are lively, as campaigns push self-serving lines in a frantic effort to characterize the debate before reporters file their reports. Tonight was different. There was no need for spin. Nothing had happened during the debate that needed explaining, defending, or amplification. No campaign bothered attempting to argue that its man had won--or had even outscored anyone else.

One reporter asked Edwards to identify the "critical point" in the debate. He accurately replied, "I'm not sure there was a critical point." Edwards did gripe that the format of the debate had prevented him from talking about "a lot of issues that affect people's lives so voters could see what I would do." I asked him to tell us what issues he had in mind. He replied, "What the country is hungry for is an optimistic, positive vision of hope." And he went on to repeat his standard line that there are "two different Americas," one where people have health care and win big under the tax system, one where people do not.

But, I pressed him, what specific issues should have been addressed. He responded by noting that he had proposed banning campaign contributions from lobbyists, implementing more extensive disclosure of lobbying activity, and ending the revolving door between government and lobbying firms. I gently reminded him that he had mentioned all of this during the debate. But he noted he had not had the chance to discuss his plan to improve public schools with bonus pay for teachers in tough school districts. And he repeated a concern he had raised during the debate: none of the candidates is talking about the 35 million Americans who live in poverty. More time in the debate, he noted, was devoted to discussing gay marriage than this troubling situation. "The debate may have been helpful for people to get a general impression of us," he remarked. "But the substantive differences in our views was hard to tell." Still, he added, "I was the candidate who presented an uplifting message of hope."

If there was any interesting spin, it came from Joe Trippi, Dean's campaign manager. He came to the "Spin Room" with a mantra: the Governor showed that what is different about him is that he got results in Vermont and stood up when it was tough to do so. Trippi repeated that message to reporters over and over.

"Dean didn't say a lot about his campaign as an insurgent movement," I said to Trippi. He replied, "A lot of the focus is on him right now. And there are a lot of candidates who are talking about special interests and change." Trippi noted that the reason Dean entered the race originally was that he "cares so much about health care." Clearly, the Dean strategy of the moment is to present Dean not so much as the maverick assailing Washington--even if Dean still does say, "we want our country back"--but as a gutsy executive who has a record of accomplishment. "We have to establish what the campaign is really about," Trippi said. "It's about a guy who used to come to New Hampshire when no one knew his name, with brochures in his back pockets and talked about his real record on health care and balancing budgets and standing up when it's not always popular to do so." Trippi added, "I don't think New Hampshire is going to let 15 seconds of videotape change that." Perhaps. But for the Dean campaign now is the time to forget about the Dean movement and concentrate on Dean the man.

Can the Dean campaign pull off this transition? Why bother predicting when the answer will come soon enough? One less-than-encouraging sign for the Dean gang: Trippi was the last campaign personality to exit the "Spin Room." By the time he left, most reporters had departed, many grumbling about the low-energy/low-impact debate. The room was close to empty. Trippi had stayed longer than aides from any of the other campaigns.

DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.

Bush helps CBS, CBS helps Bush

The annual Super Bowl game draws a huge audience of television viewers – 130 million Americans are expected to view the game February 1 -- and advertisers of all types want to reach that audience. So CBS, which will air the most-watched football game of the year, has jacked up ad rates accordingly and begun selling chunks of air time to peddlers of beer, soda pop, cars, trucks and political agendas.

But the network is not taking ads from all comers. Some political views have been judged unacceptable by CBS censors. While advertising industry sources say CBS will air a pair of advocacy commercials prepared to advance the agenda of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the network has refused to accept an advertisement prepared by critics of the man who currently occupies the White House.

The MoveOn.org Voter Fund recently conducted a "Bush in 30 Seconds" TV ad contest, in which it promised that the winning entry would be shown during the Super Bowl broadcast. MoveOn, the innovative internet-based activist community, was willing to pay the $2 million it would cost to air the ad. And no one suggests that the ad is inaccurate or inappropriate; indeed, Fox TV commentator Bill'Reilly, no fan of MoveOn, says: "It's not offensive, (it) makes a legitimate point politically."

Yet, CBS is refusing to run the MoveOn ad, claiming in the words of CBS spokesperson Dana McClintock, "We have a policy against accepting advocacy advertising." The reason? CBS told MoveOn that it does not want to trouble viewers with commercials that address "controversial issues of public importance."

The MoveOn commercial does indeed address an issue of public importance: the rapid growth of the federal deficit. But as advocacy ads go, this ad is not particularly controversial. The ad simply warns that the Bush Administration's reckless policy of cutting taxes for wealthy Americans while hiking spending is creating a huge federal budget deficit that will have to be paid off by future generations. That statement merely echoes concerns expressed by both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Just this week, more than three dozen Republican members of the House launched a campaign to get the White House to slow the rate of deficit spending.

In fairness to CBS, the MoveOn advertisement might be considered controversial by White House political czar Karl Rove and others who are offended by any criticism of the president or his policies. But if controversy is really a concern, then why would CBS consider airing advocacy commercials from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy?

At a time when millions of Americans, including federal judges, mayors, governors and members of Congress are questioning the wisdom of continuing the failed war on drugs, the Office of National Drug Control Policy advocacy ads frequently inspire controversy. Indeed, past Super Bowl commercials from the agency, which equated casual drug use with support for international terrorism, have stirred significant debate – and, yes, controversy.

So what's the real reason for the CBS decision to censor an advertisement – from MoveOn -- that raises legitimate questions about the president's approach to a pressing national concern?

"It seems to us that CBS simply defers to those it fears or from whom it wants favors – in this case, the Bush White House," argues Eli Pariser, campaign director for MoveOn.org. "This is the same CBS that recently backed down when the Republican National Committee made a stink about its mini-series on former President Reagan and his family."

Pariser notes, correctly, that Viacom -- the parent company of CBS that also owns the UPN network, MTV, Showtime, Nickelodeon, BET, Paramount Pictures, Blockbuster Video, over 175 radio stations and more than 35 local television stations -- has been in the forefront of lobbying for the lifting of Federal Communications Commission limits on media consolidation and conglomeration.

On June 2 of last year, the FCC voted 3-2 to allow networks such as CBS to dramatically expand their control over local television markets.

Even when Congress roll back the FCC rule changes, the Bush White House took the side of CBS – pressuring Republican leaders in the House and Senate to prevent votes on initiatives to retain existing ownership limits. Now, in an election year, CBS is taking the side of the Bush White House and censoring an advertisement that seeks to open a debate about the president's fiscal policies – while at the same time preparing to air a commercial that advances other policies promoted by the same president.

When it comes to censoring Super Bowl commercials, CBS is way out of bounds.

To view the MoveOn Voter Fund commercial, go to: http://www.bushin30seconds.org/

To learn more about the controversy and the fight over the FCC rule changes, go to: http://mediareform.net/media/

To learn more about lobbying of the FCC and Congress by CBS and other major communications corporations, go to http://www.publicintegrity.org/dtaweb/index.asp?L1=20&L2=21&L3=0&L4=0&L5...

Thirty-One Years of Freedom

On the 31th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the number of US abortion providers has fallen to its lowest level in three decades, a trend many physicians ascribe to a hostile political climate, the surge of hospital mergers and a lack of enthusiasm for teaching the procedure at most medical schools. And things will likely get worse with most centers of political power in the US currently occupied by anti-choice hardliners.

Fortunately, there are numerous organizations taking effective action to help preserve and expand women's right to reproductive choice. Joining one of them today would be a good way to mark the anniversary's importance. Click here for a listing of links to groups as well as relevant Nation articles, essays and columns, including Jennifer Baumgardner's recent editorial, "We're Not Sorry, Charlie." Laura Flanders's Your Call radio program will also feature a Roe anniversary show today. Click here to listen online.

Thoughts on the SOTU

1/Bush may want to strengthen marriage in this country but he strained mine last night. Just as he launched into sermon about how "a strong America must also value the institution of marriage," my husband was furious with me for making him miss the end of the Tennessee/Kentucky college basketball game. (Yes, we are a two TV family, but the other one was broken.) And, as for trying "to send the right messages to our children," I did make my daughter watch the speech. Her response was to ask why Bush doesn't propose a constitutional amendment making it illegal for pop stars like Britney to marry if he cares so much about preserving the sanctity of the institution of marriage.

2/The New York Times observed today that the President concluded his address by echoing the words Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote on the day he died in April 1945: "My fellow citizens, we now move forward with confidence and faith." Faith and confidence in this speech? Pleeez. In a time of revolutionary despair, during the Great Depression and World War II, President Roosevelt gave America a vision of hope, confidence and courage and told us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Instead, Bush just reminded us last night that this Administration has nothing to fear but the end of fear itself.

3/Watching Teddy Kennedy's expressions during the speech almost made up for the fact that there were 71 rounds of applause. (71 rounds? They didn't even get that in Soviet Central Committee meetings.) The first shot showed Kennedy's despair; the second showed his disbelief when Bush brandished the new threat--"weapons of mass destruction-related program activities," by the end Kennedy was downright grimacing. And, in a post-speech interview, the senior Senator from Mass. was literally hopping mad as he lashed out at Bush's mendacity--"see what he does, not what he says," he warned.

4/Hopeful sign of life in the Congressional chamber: the small round of applause which greeted Bush's warning that "key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire next year."

5/And what was all that stuff about steroids? Was it Bush's way of taking a shot at Arnold in case California's new governor succeeds in getting an amendment passed allowing US citizens born outside of the US to run for President? As Bush warned, steroid use "...sends the wrong message--that there are shortcuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character."

NOTE: Click here for Robert Borosage's "Kitchen Table State of the Union," which offers a true look at America at the dawn of 2004.

Bush's Defiant State of the Union

"No one can now doubt the word of America."

That's what George W. Bush told the United States and the world public in his State of the Union address this evening. He was referring to the war in Iraq, which he defended vigorously in the speech. But this remark made it seem he was oblivious to the fact that many people around the globe believe that the war in Iraq demonstrated that Bush's word is worth nothing. Yes, he did make good on his threat to use military force in Iraq. But he misled America and the world regarding Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Bush chose not to directly address the issue of MIA WMDs in the speech. Instead, he offered a weak argument, noting that David Kay, the chief weapons hunter, "identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities." Programs are not weapons. And Kay's report contradicted key assertions Bush and his aides issued before the war. Bush and Company had claimed Hussein had revived a nuclear weapons program. Kay said, "to date we have not uncovered evidence that Iraq undertook significant post-1998 steps to actually build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material." Bush and his crew had maintained they possessed undeniable evidence Hussein had chemical weapons. Kay reported, "Our efforts to collect and exploit intelligence on Iraq's chemical weapons program have thus far yielded little reliable information on post-1991 CW stocks and CW agent production." In his State of the Union address, Bush said, "Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day." But it remains unclear how advanced those weapons programs were. And, more importantly, Bush had not argued prior to the war that Iraq had to be invaded and occupied to thwart Hussein's programs. Weapons that could be slipped to al Qaeda were the raison de guerre. Has he forgotten?

By now, it should be clear: Bush made the word of America dubious. And in this State of the Union speech, Bush continued his slippery ways, as he passionately hailed the pillars of his presidency: his war in Iraq and his tax cuts. Explaining why the war on terrorism must continue, he noted, "The killing has continued in Bali, Jakarta, Casablanca, Riyadh, Mombassa, Jerusalem, Istanbul, and Baghdad. The terrorists continue to plot against America and the civilized world." With such rhetoric, Bush aimed to tie the war in Iraq to the war against terrorism. Yet the link between the two is harder to prove now than ever. The most current evidence suggests that Hussein had no WMDs and maintained no working relationship with al Qaeda. He was a brutal, murderous thug. He was not part of the terrorist challenge the United States faces in the post-9/11 period. But Bush conflates the conflict in Iraq with terrorist attacks elsewhere for the obvious effect.

Bush was confident in his speech. He yielded no ground. "American will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people," he proclaimed--further suggesting that the war in Iraq was somehow necessary for the immediate protection of the United States. He celebrated the controversial Patriot Act and called on Congress to renew it before it expires next year. "The terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule," he effectively quipped.

His administration, he assured Americans, is doing everything to secure the homeland. "Inside the United States, where the war began, we must continue to give homeland security and law enforcement personnel every tool they need to defend us," he said. But he declined to respond to the criticism that his administration has moved rather slowly to enhance security at chemical plants and ports. He also neglected to mention that a report put out by a Council on Foreign Relations task force (headed by former Republican Senator Warren Rudman) noted that the needs of emergency responders are being underfunded by almost $100 billion over the next five years.

Of course, in Bush-land the American economy is doing just swell. Bush cited the obvious stats, concentrating on the recent boost in economic growth. But he also reported, "jobs are on the rise." Does he not read the newspapers? (Oh, I forgot: he has told interviewers that he does not bother with the daily papers.) In December, Bush's "strong" economy created 1000 jobs. That's less than the number of people who attend the average Bush fundraiser. And on Planet Bush, there are no problems with his No Child Left Behind Act--which has been blasted by educators across the country for shackling school systems with arbitrary tests and standards that can cause more harm than good and for shortchanging schools on funds.

Bush proposed more tax cuts and said there was no reason to fret about budget deficits. He urged Congress to extend the various tax cuts it passed last year. "Unless you act," he said, "Americans face a tax increase. What the Congress has given, the Congress should not take away. For the sake of job growth, the tax cuts you passed should be permanent." This was a disingenuous statement. There is nothing wrong with Congress providing temporary tax breaks. In fact, Republicans put expiration dates on the tax cuts in order to keep the size of the package down and within budgetary limits. As for job growth, there is no proof yet (it may come; it may not) that the recent tax cuts will stir significant job growth.

Bush claimed that the budget he will soon send to Congress will "cut the deficit in half over the next five years." Here was the latest installment in a long run of fuzzy math. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Bush's projections "show a large decline in the deficit by 2009 only because the [Office of Management and Budget] figures will omit a series of very likely or inevitable costs in taxes, defense spending, and other areas." The center explains:

"A series of analyses -- including analyses by the Brookings Institution, Goldman-Sachs, and a joint analysis by the business-led Committee for Economic Development, the Concord Coalition, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities -- all have found that recent budget projections omit a number of likely costs that must be added back to gain a realistic sense of the budget deficits we face in coming years. The administration's forthcoming budget is expected to have approximately $200 billion in missing costs in the fifth year."

"Specifically, the OMB figures are likely to exclude the costs of fighting terrorism internationally after September 30, 2004; to fail to reflect the full costs of the Administration's own "Future Year Defense Plan;" to omit the costs of extending relief from the mushrooming Alternative Minimum Tax after 2005; and to omit the costs of extending a series of very popular tax breaks."

Using real-world assumptions, the center calculates that the deficit is likely to rise from $374 billion in 2003 to between $440 billion and $500 billion in 2009. It adds, "The administration's contention that the deficit will be cut in half in the next five years thus is essentially an accounting fiction, derived in large part by omitting very likely or inevitable costs, including costs for proposals the administration itself hopes and intends to submit in the years ahead." Let's see Bush keep his word on his deficit pledge.

Bush peppered the tail end of his speech with references to domestic policy initiatives that have been designed either to steal thunder from the Democrats or to jazz up his social conservative base. To achieve the former, he praised the recently passed Medicare prescription drug benefit and proposed a refundable tax credit that would allow lower-income Americans to buy their own basic health insurance. Then he signaled he would support a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage and pressed Congress to pass legislation that would lead to greater federal funding of religious groups that provide social services. In a weird twist, Bush did not refer to his recent space exploration initiative. But he did call for doubling federal funding of abstinence education as a means of combating sexually transmitted disease among teens, for devoting $300 million to a program to assist newly released prisoners, and for sports teams owners, coaches and players to launch a campaign against steroids use in professional sports.

"My fellow citizens," Bush said, "we now move forward, with confidence and faith." At least, the Bush campaign does. The speech was a sign that Bush and Karl Rove see no need to modulate, triangulate, or recalibrate. They have nothing to apologize for. Nothing to explain. They are quite pleased with the path they have charted this past year. They will stay the course. They are not ducking. There is no rope-a-dope. That probably is good news for Democrats. Bush is a fixed target, defiantly standing by his policies and daring his opponents to bring it on.

DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.

And, read Corn's Iowa Talking Points.

IOWA: Ten Talking Points

1. It's not the movement, it's the man. Voters vote for a person, not the forces he or she unleashes. Howard Dean did birth a movement of sorts. It has been made up in part of political newcomers outraged by the war in Iraq and George W. Bush's lies. The rise of this Internet-fueled activism was the story of the campaign--until Iowa. When the voting started, the only issue was the candidates, not their troops. Dean was judged on his own. And he did not sufficiently impress the caucus attendees. Was it his gaffes? Did he come across as too angry, too unsteady, or not experienced enough? The reasons don't matter. In the electoral arena, a movement can only go so far as its leader can carry it.

2. The war didn't matter. An entrance poll taken at the caucuses showed that 75 percent of the attendees opposed the war in Iraq. But only 14 percent said the war had influenced their selection of a nominee. This somewhat explains Dean's slide. The candidates who had voted to grant Bush authorization for war garnered 81 percent of the vote. The two antiwar candidates--Dean and Dennis Kucinich--attracted 19 percent. Voters who disagreed with Kerry and Edwards on the war were still willing to support them. Why? Perhaps the old cliche of political consultants provides the explanation: elections are about the future, not the past. Even if voters were on the same side as Dean on the war, it did not mean they believed he would be able to beat Bush or be able to handle the national security challenges that lie ahead. Being right only gets you so far. A candidate has to offer more than that. The Iowa returns indicate the war has not yet become an overwhelmingly divisive--or decisive--political issue.

3. Voters want to be reassured, not merely fired up. Dean had the passion. He pumped up the volume. (He shouted like a madman on election night, promising to win the primaries to come.) His message and method certainly struck a nerve and drew hundreds of thousands of Americans to his campaign. But the Iowa caucuses suggest that Dean did not inspire confidence among caucus goer. Are voters--particularly in the post-9/11 era--looking for leaders who not only can express outrage but who can also project calm and strength?

4. Negative campaigning works. Dean's drop was not entirely of his own making. He was battered by his competitors, and the media attention he drew was often caustic. Negative ads tend to take a toll--especially when they are relentless. Unfortunately for Gephardt, his attacks on Dean also appeared to have damaged his own campaign and created an opening for Kerry and Edwards. Is there a lesson here for the general election? Perhaps. Bush will have $200 million or so to spend in the months before the summer. That can buy a lot of mud to hurl at whoever winds up the Democratic nominee. But also the Democratic nominee will have to figure out how to balance his attacks against Bush with a positive, upbeat message.

5. Special interests are bad. Every Democratic candidate in Iowa bashed special interests. Each promised that if he were elected he would do battle with HMOs, drug companies, insurance firms, agribusiness, power companies and the like. On election night, John Kerry stood before a banner that read, "Fighting for Us," and proclaimed, "I have a special message for the special interests that call the Bush White House home: We're coming. You're leaving. And don't let the door hit you on your way out." This was bad news for the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council wing of the party, which has often counseled against class warfare or corporate-bashing. Populist rhetoric (which, of course, is different from populist action) reigns supreme--at least for now.

6. Is money enough? In recent years, the candidate with the biggest campaign bank account at the start of the primary process always bagged the nomination. Dean was in that position before Iowa. His money allowed him to create large organizations in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere, and to fund an advertising barrage in key states. But is the money enough to sustain Dean's candidacy? Will this be the year a candidate with less money triumphs?

7. Can the Democrats count on traditional Big Labor? Richard Gephardt had a lock on the industrial unions in Iowa. They vowed to turn out their members for him. But these promises ended up meaning little. Either the labor unions failed to get their folks to the caucuses, or they failed to persuade their people to vote for the guy they endorsed. In either case, Democrats ought to worry about the ability of the large trade unions to produce vast blocs of votes for the Democratic challenger in November.

8. Dennis Kucinich is not acquitting himself well. Kucinich's 1 percent does not provide much justification for continuing his progressive campaign. But he also committed a misstep when he struck a deal with John Edwards and pledged his voters to Edwards in caucuses where Kucinich would not reach the cutoff. Since Kucinich is running as an antiwar candidate--boasting he will pull the troops out of Iraq faster than the others--it was odd that he forged an alliance with Edwards, who has supported the war in Iraq. Why not Dean, who shares Kucinich's opposition to the war? In any event, this tactical move made little difference in the final results. But it did tarnish Kucinich's status as a stand-by-principles politician.

9. Ban the caucuses. Anyone watching the caucuces on C-SPAN--which was the best reality TV of the season--could see that this is a poor way of choosing a nominee. It's not grassroots democracy at its best. It's chaos. In precincts where candidates do not hit 15 percent, rampant dealmaking ensues, as the other camps try to entice the supporters of the under-15 candidates to join them. How do they do this? By offering them delegate slots and by making arguments that often are factually suspect. The final results, then, do not reflect the true preferences of the people who bothered to attend the caucuses. They are a partial reflection, shaped by whatever wheedling goes on while the "voting" is in process. A primary--and direct voting--would provide a more accurate representation of Iowans' wishes.

10. The pundits know what they're talking about. Before the Dean movement--or bubble--fully emerged, political prognosticators pegged Kerry as the front-runner. He had the stature, the gravitas, the experience, the money. He was, many said (myself included), the default candidate. But Kerry ran a poor campaign and spent months failing to connect. He also devoted too much time and energy to swiping at Dean--which made Kerry look desperate and small. But once he stopped flailing, and once Iowa voters got closer to having to make a choice, Kerry returned to his pre-Dean spot: a by-the-numbers Democratic candidate acceptable (if not inspirational) to many Democratic voters. The pundits had that right. But after the surprising results in Iowa, they would be wise not to make any further predictions for the duration of the race.

DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.