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How much does the White House stand to save from Bush's tax cut?

Vermont, as John Kenneth Galbraith once observed, is the only state in the union represented in Congress by a Democrat, a Republican and a Socialist, who all vote more or less alike (that is, liberal). Scratch the Republican label, otherwise his point holds. This small state of delicious anachronisms has once again worked its magic on the leaden cynicism of big-time power politics. Let's hear it for Vermonters, who send people of distinctive quality to speak for them in Washington.

And let's hear it for Jim Jeffords and his truth-telling. The larger meaning of his defection is that, in a single stroke, he cut through the smoke and spin manufactured by Bush's White House to obscure the radical nature of its right-wing agenda and rang the gong on those media suck-ups who compliantly portrayed this new President as the moderate middle. The senator's action even obliquely rebuked Democrats for the limpness of their opposition. Thus, Jeffords effectively resolved the dissonance between the establishment version of business as usual in Washington and what citizens at large are perceiving with growing alarm and anger. People distant from Washington, it turns out, were not wrong about Bush. Thanks, Senator, for blowing his cover.

The governing classes should rather quickly digest the truth of what Jeffords was telling them, starting with Bush but including Democratic leaders. If the President is a more formidable character than we assume, he will take seriously the senator's warning that he is on track to become a one-term President like his father. He might begin by looking close around him, assigning blame and getting real distance from his lousy counselors. Karl Rove, the political adviser mentored by the late Lee Atwater, embodies hard-right arrogance and small-town, get-even tactics--an approach regularly expressed for him by the Wall Street Journal's hit man, columnist Paul Gigot, who in April urged the White House to "get even privately" with Jeffords for his mild dissents on tax cuts and education. The Senate GOP leader, Trent Lott, comes from the same school. His crude manipulations of regular order--firing the Senate parliamentarian, pocketing the campaign finance bill after the Senate passed it--reflect the cynicism of one-party rule found in Mississippi and originally practiced by segregation Democrats. Bush needs new eyes and ears in Congress--people who understand that this representative institution is bigger than the Sunbelt.

George W. is further endangered by his adolescent dependence on Vice President Cheney, a 1970s politician whose grasp of present issues like energy and the environment is not only tone-deaf to public attitudes but so outdated that even leading industrialists admit his remedies are wrongheaded. In short, without a major shift in strategic direction the Bush presidency is in long-term trouble, too deep for the usual cosmetics. We doubt he is up to it, even if he recognizes the danger.

Democrats, meanwhile, have the chance to make themselves over--if they will shake off the accommodationist mush, recognize they are engaged in a deadly fight over the future and appreciate that the abrupt Senate makeover challenges them to be as bold as Jeffords. Thanks to him, the new majority has been given critical leverage: the ability to block the right wing's capture of the federal judiciary, the platform to launch a fresh activist legislative agenda and an opening to begin the hard politics of canceling major portions of Bush's just-enacted tax-cut boodle. Democrats can stall and dilute and even kill the right's agenda, but they do not have the power to legislate. What they do have is the luxury of testing new frontiers--advancing an agenda of big ideas that can be long-term winners, forcing this conservative President and his right-wing camp followers to block them or run for cover. Big ideas mean taking risks, of course, but they would begin to reconnect the party with its own tattered ideals and neglected constituencies: Universal health insurance and a step-by-step plan to achieve it, starting at the state level. Challenging market power with renewed inquiry into whether antitrust doctrine really protects the small but vital elements of enterprise from monopolistic domination. The deteriorated condition of work and wages, not only for the working poor but across a broad spectrum of occupations. The inequity of the tax code, as explored from the ground up.

The alternative--more of the same--means piddling along halfheartedly with too-cute positions that are easily rolled by a dedicated opposition. The Democrats' sorry debacle in the tax-cut debate should have taught them that they don't win by going halfway toward the right's zealotry--they merely lose bigger. Ambitious politics can set the stage for more ambitious governing. The Jeffords message, in that sense, is threatening to both parties--another invitation to independent figures, from Jesse Ventura to John McCain, to step clear of tired party labels and truly upend the status quo.

We don't wish to overinterpret the import of one politician's change of heart. The Senate remains composed of the same 100 men and women who enacted Bush's reactionary comfort-the-wealthy tax bill and who will no doubt enact other odious measures, with the assistance of turncoat Democrats. Still, the poetic drama--an obscure and diffident senator from a very small state shocking the system with truth-telling--does renew our sense of hopefulness. The conservative hegemony is living on borrowed time. Right-wing nostrums are no longer convincing to most people, but they're not yet challenged by an aggressive progressive agenda, and an alternative vision has yet to find a confident voice. Our optimism may still sound premature, but the boldness of Senator Jeffords encourages us to believe that things really are changing--perhaps changing faster than the rest of Washington understands.

Austin

Oh, sure, blame it on Texas. It's all our fault Jim Jeffords walked. Many, many people in Washington are assuming "the Texans" in the White House are responsible for this massive screw-up. Whereas everybody in political Austin assumes it. It's often hard to discern the difference between Texas Tough and Texas Stupid.

"What do we do now?" That famous last line of the 1972 film The Candidate, in which Robert Redford finds himself--to his surprise--elected to the Senate, should be on the minds of Senate Democrats, now that Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont has abandoned the GOP for independent-hood and an alliance with the Dems. It took a moderate--a dying breed in the Republican Party--to thrust Tom Daschle & Co. into control of half of Congress. That should mean the end of Bush's relatively--and unexpectedly--easy ride in Washington. With such a change, the Democrats' leaders will no longer be able to wring their hands and plead minority status when they lose legislative battles, such as the fight over the relieve-the-rich tax cut. The party will gain the (theoretical) ability to strike down the Bush agenda and deny him his more extreme appointees--to speak for the majority of voters who said no to Bush. All this is possible, that is, if the Democrats can mount a unified opposition. A big if, since several Senate Dems have been happy to work with Bush on taxes and other measures. The Jeffords switch doesn't change that dynamic. After all, a dozen Senate Dems ended up voting for the Reaganesque tax cut.

There is much the party can do with the Senate in its hands. Ever since the Republicans took over Congress after the 1994 election, the Democrats have tried to beat up the party of Gingrich on kitchen-table issues, including healthcare, prescription drugs, education and wages. With an edge in the Senate, Democrats have the chance to pass uncompromising legislation on several fronts: a strong patient bill of rights, expansions in health insurance to cover those not covered, a minimum-wage boost free of tax breaks for corporations. These bills would likely be shot down by the Republicans in the House and President Bush. But this could show that the Democrats do stand for something and create a record of difference useful for the party in the elections of 2002 and 2004. The last time the Democrats were in charge of Congress, they passed a modest Family and Medical Leave Act, Bush the Elder vetoed it, and a very effective campaign issue was handed to candidate Bill Clinton.

The Democrats have picked up the power of subpoena. There are many topics worthy of its use. Oil company price-gouging. Electric utilities price-gouging. Pharmaceutical companies price-gouging. Perhaps an inquiry into the recent fundraiser at the Vice President's home. (Oh, sorry, the Republicans claim it was just a "thank you" to financial supporters, not a fundraiser.) The Democrats are free to host high-profile hearings to counter Bush's bully pulpit and to advance their own ideas. Imagine hearings on victims of arsenic poisoning. Or on the dangers of nuclear waste disposal. Or on the plight of older Americans who can't afford medicine. Or on renewable-energy alternatives to increased oil drilling.

The Jeffords move, perhaps partly caused by heavy-handed Bush/GOP tactics, including threats made against dairy price supports for Vermont farmers, shows that the Republicans have a hard time being anything other than a party of the right. Yet Senator Zell Miller--the conservative Democrat of Georgia and number-one target for GOP defector-hunters--could in a similar way inconvenience the Democrats, although he has twice said he wouldn't join the party with which he regularly votes. And a Jeffords jump is not the end but the beginning of the intrigue. GOPers will be trawling for other Democratic cross-dressers besides Miller (and making sure that at least one senior citizen, Strom Thurmond, has ready access to prescription drugs). Senator Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, ought to be sweating even more. He's being investigated on a number of matters--deservedly so, it appears--but now the Republicans have even more incentive to nail him.

That one Yankee could so upset the balance in Washington--and so discomfit the Bush advance--illuminates not only how divided are forces in the capital but how much opportunity exists for the Democrats, should they be able to act like a party of principles.

"What do we do now?" That famous last line of the 1972 film The Candidate, in which Robert Redford finds himself--to his surprise--elected to the Senate, should be on the minds of Senate De

As he goes, so goes the Senate.

He's an archconservative who thinks big and knows how to get things done.

As thousands of blacks registered, the state threw many others off the rolls.

In recent months, as a newly elected senator, I have had to decide whether to join the Democratic Leadership Council. I have chosen not to because while I shared its founding purpose, which was to frame a successful response to President Reagan's efforts to portray Democrats as the party of "tax and spend," social engineering and failed personal responsibility, I believe that purpose has been largely accomplished.

Today, I believe that it is vital for Democrats to stand up for a sharply defined progressive agenda--one that is committed to fighting for practical and progressive policies for working families and America's middle class--even when that means challenging powerful interests and the status quo. I am absolutely convinced that, standing on the foundation of fiscal stability that Democrats have built and to which the DLC contributed, we now have to fight for our convictions. If we begin to negotiate from the middle, the end result inevitably takes us to the right of where I believe our nation should be.

Nothing is more relevant to this point than today's debate over the Bush tax cut proposal. Democrats must remain firmly opposed to this budget-busting plan, which provides disproportionate benefits for the richest 1 percent of our population. It is relevant and essential to our argument that this tax cut is not only unfocused and poorly timed but also unfair. In fact, if we yield on fairness before the debate begins, we forfeit our fundamental ground. That is one reason I have proposed a tax cut that gives an immediate break to everyone equally and is targeted toward working families.

Moreover, the DLC has not convinced me that we should turn away from advocating an activist government--one that, for example, sees healthcare as a basic right for all Americans. And while compromise is an acceptable end, too much of it too soon has led to a paralysis on fundamental concerns such as healthcare, gun safety, the environment and educational opportunity.

The critical point to be made by progressives in our national debate is this: While there are programs that have failed and should be reformed or eliminated, proactive government has often succeeded. An activist government was a driving force in the prosperity of the 1990s, as well as in providing our historic safety net, including Social Security, Medicare and Head Start. An activist government invested in the development of the Internet and the space program and spurred today's technological revolution. It was government investment that built our highways, air transit system and much of our communications network. And the list goes on. Without progressive leadership, would segregation have been outlawed? Would women have achieved as much access as they now have to equal rights? The pressure for advancement came from grassroots progressives. That said, reform and progress required our government to respond and lead. We're still far from the ideal, as racial profiling and unequal incomes for women and minorities attest. There are no African-American or Latino senators, but at least there are thirteen women senators--surely not enough, but more than there have ever been before. The lesson of history is clear: Equal rights for all depend on public action and so do equal pay, worker safety and retirement security. The barriers to opportunity for all don't just fall on their own.

Today, the progressive agenda must address the great unfinished challenges--for women, for middle-class families, for minorities and the poor. It's a hopeful agenda rooted in ideas and our ideals. As I put it in my Senate campaign, "Everyone ought to have the same access to the American promise I've had." America must be a society of equal opportunity and equal protection before the law. So I believe the progressive agenda of our party is more important than ever. And the principle that should guide us is clear: While we can't achieve equal outcomes, we can and must assure equal opportunity.

We also have to articulate the truth that advancing social and economic justice advances everyone's prosperity. We need to challenge the special interests that would limit the rights of labor and the opportunities of women and minorities, because we need all the talents of all our people to achieve maximum productivity and growth. We need to challenge the health insurance industry and finally win the battle for universal access to healthcare, because it is morally right and economically rational. Just because conservatives have demonized the term "universal healthcare" we should not walk away from that battle for the sake of a calculated centrism that splits the difference between right and wrong.

When I was a candidate, the polls said that the majority of New Jersey voters disagreed with my opposition to the death penalty. I'm grateful the voters respected that I said what I believed even when it wasn't popular. As progressives, we must be ready to do that. Most of the progressive agenda--healthcare, the environment, gun safety, a progressive tax policy-- reflects the values and the ideals of the majority of our people. They will vote for our agenda if we present it in practical terms and fight for it.

So while I respect the contribution of the DLC and while I respect its leaders, I'm not ready to join. The answer to "compassionate conservatism" isn't timid progressivism. It's a real commitment to equal opportunity, to fiscal responsibility and a fair society. We can and must be a party with the courage to stand tall for our beliefs because that's how we will be able to win as the party of the people.

We learned a few things from Dan Burton's hearings into the Clinton pardons. We learned that Bill Clinton's pardon of billionaire expatriate Marc Rich was no last-minute rush job. According to testimony by White House aides and lawyers, Rich's pardon application was the subject of multiple White House meetings over a span of weeks, with White House lawyers opposing clemency for Rich every step of the way. Clinton, always his own worst enemy, alone assented to the lobbying efforts of Rich lawyer and former White House counsel Jack Quinn.

We also learned that Burton, while filling a few nights' bandwidth on the scandal-dependent cable news channels, would evade every attempt to place the pardon controversy in perspective, rejecting repeated requests by Democrats to call witnesses and solicit evidence on pardons past. This is not to make excuses for Bill Clinton, but Burton's refusal to examine past abuses of the presidential pardon starkly reveals an inquiry called merely to humiliate and punish a political enemy and those who worked for him, rather than to explore policy questions.

If Congress were serious, these hearings would necessarily address pardons by Clinton's predecessors, starting with Bush the First. Poppy Bush's pardons of Caspar Weinberger and other Iran/contra felons have been widely discussed but still deserve closer scrutiny: Not only did Weinberger & Co. break federal laws, abuse high office and deceive Congress; their pardons gave every appearance of protecting Bush himself from investigation. Then there is Armand Hammer, who in 1989 gave $100,000 to the Republican Party and another $100,000 to the Bush-Quayle Inaugural Committee just weeks before Bush pardoned him for illegal campaign contributions. And now comes Time.com's special report on Bush's last-minute pardon of Edwin Cox Jr. for bank fraud after James Baker wrote a note to the White House counsel, with a copy to Bush, describing Cox's father as "a longtime supporter of the President's." The elder Cox later pledged at least $100,000 to the Bush presidential library. CNN followed up with a report that the Cox family was a substantial contributor to the Bush family's campaigns and the GOP, including $31,500 to George W. Bush's gubernatorial and presidential campaigns.

The point is that Clinton's pardons of Rich et al. are scarcely unique outrages. Clinton exercised his unreviewable pardon power in ways that reveal much about his character but provide no hint of illegality. So what is the purpose of further hearings, beyond retribution? Surely not some constitutional amendment aimed at curtailing presidential pardons, which despite the abuses by both Clinton and his predecessors remain the only tool for a courageous executive to correct a serious injustice (a category for which a few of Clinton's pardons qualify).

The Clinton pardon fiasco does raise some important issues. Quinn invented a giant loophole in the law barring revolving-door influence-peddling in order to lobby his former boss. And cash for clemency remains an outrage whether it's about Marc Rich or Armand Hammer. But such pardons are scandalous in the same way that Congressional legislation friendly to corporate donors is scandalous. The pardon flap matters primarily because it further erodes public confidence that anything in our constitutional democracy can survive the polluting power of big-money donations.

Future Marc Rich-type pardons can be cured only by radical campaign finance reform--a far cry from the partisan dart-throwing on display in Dan Burton's hearing room.

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