News and Features
John Ashcroft's new leadership of the Department of Justice signals hard tomes for come in the United States.
Tommy Thompson's track record as governor of Wisconsin bodes poorly for his tenure as head of the Department of Health and Human Services.
John Ashcroft took office swearing on a stack of Bibles--on three of them, actually, one for each of his children--to run "a professional Justice Department that is free from politics." Sure.
Political cross-dressing by the Democrats ended on January 25 in Washington when their erstwhile conservative patron, Alan Greenspan, abruptly jilted them. Under Bill Clinton's tutelage, the party of working people held the hem of the Federal Reserve chairman's dark robes and pretended to be fiscal conservatives, just like him. We must not cut taxes, they insisted piously, we must instead use the burgeoning federal surpluses to pay off the national debt. Greenspan would solemnly bless these expressions of Hooverite restraint.
Then he blew them off. The Fed chairman announced his support for George W. Bush's broad agenda of major tax cuts and, for good measure, the dismantling of Social Security as we know it. He is, as ever, an astute opportunist. During the Clinton years, Greenspan did his own turn at cross-dressing, making chummy with a Democratic President who followed his directions. Now that a new President from the Party of Money is in power, Greenspan returns to the one true faith--rescuing business and the wealthy from the clutches of government. His pronouncements will inspire a lobbying contest among the upscale interests to see who can extract the most boodle from the Treasury.
Democrats are feeling hurt and disoriented. They fully deserve their embarrassment. Their embrace of conservative fiscal orthodoxy seemed clever at the time--a stalling tactic to hold off more GOP tax cuts for the wealthy--but like so many of Clinton's too-cute tactics, it was always a dead-end strategy for liberals. An activist party committed to addressing major public problems was, in effect, promising to do little or nothing of significance while massive surpluses accumulated for the next ten or fifteen years. The GOP could say, and did: If the government is collecting so much extra tax revenue, why not give some of it back to the people? Alternatively, Democrats might have proposed a major down payment on healthcare and other neglected social problems. Instead, we got Al Gore's "lockbox"--much ridiculed because it was always a ridiculous gimmick. Bookkeepers, it turns out, do not make very compelling presidential candidates.
Now, as the economy weakens so quickly that the Fed has moved twice to lower interest rates, Democrats are scrambling to be pro-tax cuts and belatedly trying to figure out what that means. This is the minority party's first great post-Clinton opportunity to restore its progressive reputation and show that it still has some fight. We have suggestions. First, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate should draw a bright line of principled resistance to yet another regressive tax package (never mind that some in their ranks are already defecting). For two decades, Democrats have collaborated in the Republicans' hog-feeding splurges, joining in the bidding wars to reward contributors and favored interests. This time, even if the prospects look doubtful, the party must oppose the giveaways--estate tax repeal, another capital gains tax cut, the phony tax incentive for corporate R&D, and other goodies Republicans are putting on the table. If income tax rates are to be reduced, don't acquiesce again in the Reaganite sleight of hand that cuts the top and bottom rates across the board as though the wealthiest are getting equal treatment with the least fortunate.
The positive principle, in addition to providing emergency stimulus for the economy, should be: Heal the wounded, the people whose incomes and family conditions have been squeezed for a generation, even during boom times. That means delivering the bulk of tax relief, whether the package is $800 billion or twice that much, to those on the bottom half or bottom two-thirds of the income ladder. Don't try to do this with lots of fanciful conditions that pretend to target particular social problems--just send them the money, as promptly as possible. There are many different ways to accomplish this: For example, suspend a point or two on the payroll tax paid by workers (but not employers) for a specified period of one or two years; or enact a bigger child deduction, progressively larger for families at or below the median household income level; or simply cut the lower-bracket marginal rates (while leaving the top rate alone), with an immediate cut in withholding. The important thing is not to let the principle get lost in tricky details. The principle is: The Democratic Party fights on behalf of the working middle class and poor (even if it disappoints some of its major contributors in the process). When and if the vast public hears this message from Democrats, most of them will probably not believe it. Democrats will not persuade until they learn to make the fight for real.
As for the Federal Reserve, our advice to Alan Greenspan is: Butt out. Greenspan, remember, is the wizard who supposedly "saved" Social Security back in 1983 when his blue-ribbon commission initiated the massive payroll tax increases on working people. Now he wants to save it again by destroying it. If the central bank wishes to preserve its protected status "independent" of politics, the chairman had better confine his Republican ideological preachments to dinners at the club.
How many times did we hear during the endless campaign that Bush wouldn't go after abortion if elected? Republicans, Naderites and countless know-it-alls and pundits in between agreed: Pro-choice voters were too powerful, the country was too divided, the Republicans weren't that stupid and Bush didn't really care about abortion anyway. Plus whoever won would have to (all together now) "govern from the center." Where are all those smarties now, I wonder? Bush didn't even wait for his swearing-in ceremony to start repaying the immense debt he owes to the Christian right, which gave him one in four of his votes, with the nominations of anti-choice die-hards John Ashcroft for Attorney General and Tommy Thompson to head Health and Human Services.
On his first full day in office, Bush reinstated the "gag rule" preventing international family-planning clinics and NGOs from receiving US funds if they so much as mention the word "abortion." (This action was widely misrepresented in the press as being a ban on funding for performing abortions; in fact, it bans clinics that get US aid from performing abortions with their own money and prohibits speech--whether lobbying for legal changes in countries where abortion is a crime or informing women with life- or health-threatening pregnancies about their legal options.) A few days later, Thompson announced he would look into the safety of RU-486, approved by the FDA this past fall--a drug that has been used by half a million European women over twelve years and has been more closely studied here than almost any drug on the market. In the wake of Laura Bush's remark to NBC News and the Today show that she favored retention of Roe v. Wade, both the President and the Vice President said the Administration has not ruled out a legal challenge to it, placing them to the right of Ashcroft himself, who told the Judiciary Committee he regarded Roe as settled law (at least until the makeup of the Supreme Court changes, he did not add).
Don't count on the media to alert the public. The press is into champagne and confetti: Who would have thought "Dick" Cheney would be such an amiable talk show guest! Time to move on, compromise, get busy with that big tax cut. "Who in hell is this 'all' we keep hearing about?" a friend writes, "as in 'all agree' that the Bush transition has been a smashing success?" An acquaintance at the Washington Post, whose executive editor, Leonard Downie Jr., claims to be so objective he doesn't even vote, says word has come down from "on high" that stories must bear "no trace of liberal bias"--interestingly, no comparable warnings were given against pro-Bush bias. So, on abortion, look for endless disquisitions on the grassiness of the anti-choice roots, the elitism of pro-choicers and the general tedium of the abortion issue. Robin Toner could barely stifle a yawn as she took both sides to task in the New York Times ("The Abortion Debate, Stuck in Time," January 21): Why couldn't more anti-choicers see the worth of stem cell research, like anti-choice Senator Gordon Smith, who has several relatives afflicted with Parkinson's (but presumably no relatives unwillingly pregnant); and why can't more pro-choicers acknowledge that sonograms "complicate" the status of the fetus? In an article that interviewed not a single woman, only the fetus matters: not sexuality, public health, women's bodies, needs or rights.
Now is the time to be passionate, clever, original and urgent. I hate to say it, but pro-choicers really could learn some things from the antis, and I don't mean the arts of arson, murder and lying to the Judiciary Committee. Lots of right-wing Christians tithe--how many pro-choicers write significant checks to pro-choice and feminist organizations? Why not sit down today and send President Bush a note saying that in honor of the women in his family you are making a donation to the National Network of Abortion Funds to pay for a poor woman's abortion (NNAF: Hampshire College, Amherst MA 01002-5001)? March 10 is the Day of Appreciation for Abortion Providers--send your local clinic money for an abortion "scholarship," flowers, a thank-you note, a bottle of wine, a Nation subscription for the waiting room! (Refuse & Resist has lots of ideas and projects for that day--call them at 212-713-5657.)
The antis look big and powerful because they have a built-in base in the Catholic and fundamentalist churches. But (aha!) pro-choicers have a built-in constituency too: the millions and millions of women who have had abortions. For all sorts of reasons (privacy concerns, overwork, the ideology of medicine) few clinics ask their patients to give back to the cause. Now some providers and activists are talking about changing that. "My fantasy," Susan Yanow of the Abortion Access Project wrote me, "is that every woman in this country gets a piece of paper after her procedure that says something like, 'We need your help. You just had a safe, legal abortion, something that the current Administration is actively trying to outlaw. Think of your sisters/ mothers/daughters who might need this service one day. Please help yourself to postcards and tell your elected representatives you support legal abortion, join (local group name here), come back as a volunteer' and so on." If every woman who had an abortion sent her clinic even just a dollar a year, it would mean millions of dollars for staff, security, cut-rate or gratis procedures. Think how different the debate would be if all those women, and the partners, parents, relatives and friends who helped them, spoke up boldly--especially the ones whose husbands are so vocally and famously and self-righteously anti-choice. If women did that, we would be the grassroots.
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Correction: It was Joe Conason, not Chip Berlet, who reported that John Ashcroft had met with the St. Louis head of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens. Berlet's equally fascinating story, cut for space reasons, was that Ashcroft made a cameo appearance in a 1997 Phyllis Schlafly video that claims that environmentalism, feminism, multiculturalism, gay rights and even chemical weapons treaties are part of a conspiracy to bring about One World Government. See clips at www.publiceye.org.
The great Florida recount is under way.
As the proverbial curtain rises on the Bush era in national politics, it's hard to know just how pessimistic progressives should be about the new President's aims and intentions. On a rhetorical level, we were greeted with an inaugural address that with a few minor adjustments could have been given by an incoming president of the NAACP. Look at the substance, however, and we find nominees at the Justice and Interior departments who could have been vetted by the John Birch Society, if not the Army of the Confederacy. The two warring sides of the Republican psyche were neatly illustrated recently at a dinner sponsored by the Philanthropy Roundtable at the Regency Hotel in New York, where two current stars of the Republican rubber-chicken circuit, Weekly Standard editor David Brooks and American Enterprise Institute "research scholar" and Olin fellow Dinesh D'Souza, held forth after a nicely Republican red-meat repast.
Brooks is still riding the wave of his bestselling work of "comic sociology" about America's new elite, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There. His talk, like the book, is mostly affectionate ribbing of this class for its bourgeois consumption habits and bohemian self-image. Though he'd be loath to admit it, Brooks is an old-fashioned liberal Republican, not unlike Poppy Bush before he got the bit of presidential ambition in his teeth and found his principles run over by a Reagan landslide. (Just what Brooks is doing in a party dominated not by Prescott Bush and Elliot Richardson but Dick Armey and Tom DeLay is a question for another day.) A self-confessed Bobo, Brooks has only one problem with this tolerant, secular-minded and self-satisfied elite--its lack of civic consciousness.
There are no poor people in the Bobo world--even illegal Guatemalan nannies are treated as if they are taking care of your children and cleaning your bathroom as a lifestyle choice rather than out of economic necessity. "The new elite," as Brooks explained to the assembled philanthropists, "has no ethic of chivalry." Charitable giving as a percentage of assets has not remotely kept up with the unprecedented explosion of wealth in the United States during the past decade.
The virtues of such selfishness, on the other hand, have never escaped Dinesh D'Souza. The young Indian immigrant made his name in this country giving eloquent voice to the most morally repugnant aspects of Reagan-era Republicanism. He began his career as an obnoxious Dartmouth undergrad, publishing crude racist attacks in the off-campus conservative newspaper, followed by a stint at a Princeton magazine where he delighted in exposing details of female undergrads' sex lives. His first book was a loving appreciation of aspiring ayatollah Jerry Falwell.
D'Souza became a national phenomenon with a book attacking PC culture at universities, which was defensible, if overstated, and an apologia for American racism, which he termed "rational discrimination." With its pseudointellectual patina, D'Souza's work, even more than Charles Murray's, seems designed to offer solace to those who miss the good old days of Jim Crow laws and late-night cross burnings. Segregation, he argued, was designed to protect African-Americans and "to assure that [they], like the handicapped, would be...permitted to perform to the capacity of their arrested development." It would end when "blacks as a group can show that they are capable of performing competitively in schools and the work force."
D'Souza is touring for a new work, The Virtue of Prosperity: Finding Values in an Age of Techno-Affluence. (It is a measure of how well-funded are right-wing arguments that I have so far received four unrequested copies.) The thrust of his argument is the opposite of that of Brooks. Simply put, wealth has no obligations to poverty except to avoid it. As he once argued for the logic of racism, he now speaks for the morality of parsimony. The United States, he asserts, is "probably the best society that now exists or has ever existed."
D'Souza is the kind of moral philosopher who pays more attention to the musings of the Ayn Rand-spouting entrepreneur T.J. Rodgers, who races his BMW over speed bumps while attacking the moral probings of the clergy, than he does to the combined works of John Rawls and Richard Rorty. (Terming the latter "Rip Van Rorty" is what passes for wit in these pages.) Reinhold Niebuhr receives no mention at all.
Of course, it's not exactly hard to find billionaires who think of themselves as altruists regardless of the obscene amounts of wealth they accumulate. But it is much more cost-effective to induce "intellectuals" to say it for them. D'Souza fills this purpose not only by celebrating mass wealth but by abolishing poverty. "Poverty," he argues, "understood as the absence of food, clothing, and shelter, is no longer a significant problem in America." His evidence for this breathtaking claim is that even poor people have refrigerators these days, and many of them are fat. That 30 million Americans still struggle beneath the poverty line and 42 million lack the benefit of health insurance represent, to D'Souza, mere speed bumps on our highway to capitalist utopia.
When Bush père was inaugurated, he too made a great show of what was not yet called "compassionate conservatism." He acknowledged that poor people exist and that somebody should do something about it, but as a society, he warned, we had "more will than wallet." (And anyway, his contributors were demanding a cut in the tax on capital gains.) Dubya closed his inaugural with a similar flourish, in which he promised to work "to make our country more just and generous."
To show that Dubya is even remotely serious about his agenda for the poor, he and his Administration will have to ponder the kinds of questions raised by Brooks about the moral obligations of wealth. That is, after all, about the best one can expect from Republicans. But to the degree that he wishes to prove what his enemies insist to be true--that all this compassionate conservatism is simply a frilly frock in which to clothe the Reaganite Republican values of top-down class war--expect to hear plenty more from Dinesh D'Souza.
He had a busy finale, didn't he, primarily saving his own hide and issuing pardons: eeny meeny miny mo, Marc Rich yes, Leonard Peltier no. In Rolling Stone he called for an end to the disparity in sentencing for powder and crack cocaine that he adamantly refused to fix a few years earlier. What else? Let's see, he gave Teddy Roosevelt the Medal of Honor and boasted in the accompanying speech on January 16 that in 1993 he'd broken with the usual policy of incoming Democratic Presidents, who would pull the portrait of TR off the wall above the mantelpiece in the White House's Roosevelt Room and put up FDR instead. Then the incoming Republican Commander in Chief would reverse the process. Not our Bill. He kept TR up on the wall, triangulating right from the start. On January 16 Bill said it was high time to give TR the medal for which he had been recommended right after the charge up San Juan Hill.
Exit Bill, enter the new team, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, who now has a chance to live up to those fine words of his to the Republicans massed in Philadelphia for their convention last August. Powell told the plump delegates they should not forget the poor and the afflicted.
How might Powell distinguish himself from his predecessor Madeleine Albright? The latter's final act in office was, with the approval of Clinton, to insist that a slab of US military aid to Colombia should not be held up out of any pettifogging concerns for human rights. The Colombian military and its death squads have a documented record for bestial carnage unrivaled in the entire world, and so, in admiration for this pre-eminence, last August Clinton waived four of the five human rights criteria laid out by Congress to release the first chunk of $781.5 million. A certification or waiver was also required for the second installment, of $56.4 million. While conceding that the record of the Colombian military was not all that it could be, the Clinton Administration nonetheless decided that because the second slice of aid was not included in "regular funds" but rather in an emergency spending bill, the certification and waiver process did not apply.
On January 17, the day after Bill honored the imperialist hero of the Spanish-American War, and when Albright and the others were still chortling at their ingenuity in circumventing the human rights provisions, the BBC's correspondent in Bogotá, Jeremy McDermott, reported that "alleged right-wing paramilitaries" had attacked a village on Colombia's northwest coast, killing twenty-five people. "Fifty men in military uniform arrived in Chengue in the early hours of the morning," McDermott told his audience. "They rounded up 25 men whom they accused of being guerrilla sympathizers and hacked them to death with machetes. They then set fire to thirty houses of this village in the northern province of Sucre." McDermott added that the massacre had all the hallmarks of the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a right-wing paramilitary army of 8,000 fighters "deeply involved in the drug trade."
For months the inhabitants of Chengue had a pretty good idea of what might lie in store for them. On October 6 they wrote a letter to Colombian President Andrés Pastrana, detailing the threat of violence and human rights abuses that the people of the Municipal de Ovejas feel could occur at any moment on the part of paramilitary groups operating in the region. The terrified townsfolk urged Pastrana to do something "to avoid a massacre," explaining that the government's presence was minimal in the area and that the people live in "anguish and tension" because of the documented barbarism. Attached to the letter were the signatures of ninety-nine residents of the town.
While the villagers were appealing to Pastrana to save their lives, the Clinton Administration was putting spurs to "Plan Colombia," a strategy straight off the Pentagon's Vietnam and Central American drawing board. Beefed up by US training, "advisers," arms and intelligence, the Colombian military has been planning to overwhelm guerrilla bases in southern Colombia, simultaneously eradicating the coca and poppy fields, which are the peasants' only resource, the option of legal crops long since sabotaged by US economic policies. Pretenses that the Clinton Administration is strongly supportive of a peaceful solution to Colombia's troubles has become increasingly ludicrous, as dollars and kindred practical support for the Colombian military and its death squads have flooded from Washington to Bogotá.
As a man who helped cover up the My Lai massacre, Powell knows all about such campaigns of pacification. And since he's not dumb, he knows that Plan Colombia will merely augment that country's misery, which has more than half the population below poverty level, internal refugees by the million and no prospects for improvement. He knows too that "drug interdiction," partly the official US rationale for Plan Colombia, is a farce. He knows where the $1.3 billion should have gone: into the drug education and rehab programs here in the United States. The Clinton Administration and its Republican allies successfully beat back an effort by Senator Paul Wellstone to get about $225,000 of the package reserved to that end.
What's the chance of Powell pressing for a different approach in Colombia? Zero, I'd say. But at least once we should remind him of his rhetoric in Philadelphia, just as we should remind Bush at least once of his eloquent inaugural speech about helping the poor. Why collude with these folks in their degradation of language and morals?
And Bill? He's in Chappaqua glad-handing the locals and contemplating the memoirs that will doubtless be as mendacious as those of Teddy Roosevelt, like Clinton a Force Ten blowhard and self-inflater. In a couple of weeks Bill will be ogling the girls in the bank and suggesting sorties to the local hot-mattress motel, if such sanctuary is available in the purlieus of the Saw Mill River Parkway. If she's called Gennifer we'll have come back to the beginning, just as, on the larger canvas, we do year after year with San Juan Hill.
On Day Two of the John Ashcroft hearings, Senator Pat Leahy--the Democrat temporarily chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee--asked George W. Bush's would-be Attorney General if he had blocked the nomination of businessman James Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg because Hormel is gay. Ashcroft replied, "I did not." He had quashed the nomination, Ashcroft contended, because of "the totality of the record." Actually, at the time of the Hormel controversy, Ashcroft's remarks indicated that Hormel's sexual orientation was crucial to his decision ("He's been a leader in promoting a lifestyle.... And the kind of leadership he's exhibited there is likely to be offensive.") Leahy could have challenged the ex-senator's honesty. He could have demanded that Ashcroft cite a reason beyond "lifestyle" for his opposition. Leahy had Ashcroft in his sights, but he didn't pull the trigger.
That moment was telling. Despite the right-wing rhetoric that Democrats are bent on a so-called politics of personal destruction, Senate Democrats did not slam Ashcroft as hard as they could have. For example, they didn't query him about his meeting with a leader of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens to discuss whether Ashcroft could help an imprisoned CCC member accused of conspiring to murder an FBI agent. At the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Democrats permitted designated Interior Secretary Gale Norton to slip-slide through her confirmation hearing. When she testified that "there is beginning to be more of a consensus" that global warming is under way but that there is "still disagreement as to the causes and the long-term future" of global warming, no Democrat pounced on her for mischaracterizing the current consensus among scientists that global warming is human-induced and presents a threat.
For Ashcroft and Norton, the Democrats mounted hearings designed to slap the nominees but not to defeat them. Ted Kennedy, Chuck Schumer, Richard Durbin and Joe Biden did question Ashcroft sharply. The testimony of Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White reinforced charges that Ashcroft--who had assailed White as "procriminal"--had waged a dishonest, intemperate and unfair campaign against this barrier-breaking African-American jurist. But overall, the Democrats weren't really gunning for Ashcroft or Norton--which can be seen as an indicator of how they intend to behave as the opposition.
It may be that their leaders decided that these were battles that could not be won, so why go all out? Senator Russell Feingold, a progressive, announced that as a matter of principle a President should be accorded his nominees. Several other Democrats--like the conservative Zell Miller--signaled that they would vote for Ashcroft, and Norton drew even less visible opposition. Clearly, some Democratic senators were wary of being tagged as underminers of the much-ballyhooed bipartisanship. The hard reality: With the Senate split 50-50, a single Democratic Senator can undo his or her party's position by threatening to bolt. Faced with these two way-out nominations, Senate Democrats--despite being pressed by key constituencies, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus--could not maintain a united opposition.
After the Ashcroft hearings, leaders of the anti-Ashcroft campaign criticized the Democrats, in private, for their lack of fierce effectiveness. "The Democrats have to learn how to fight to win," one of the coalition leaders complained. "Trying to achieve fairness is great. But you also have to be willing to play hardball. You didn't have good cross-examination during the hearings." The Democrats on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee disappointed the enviros opposing Norton. "It was very frustrating," said an environmental lobbyist. "Bush sends up this extremist, and the Democrats did not push back--or even send a loud message that we don't want her screwing around with laws that protect the environment." But several forgive-and-forget Senate Democrats are not interested in a fight with Bush, and that will hobble any attempt on the part of Congressional Democrats to mount a coherent anti-Bush front. And where's the Democrats' alternative-to-Bush agenda? Congressional Democrats include those eager to cooperate with the President and also those who want to trounce the Filcher of Florida. Bush the "uniter" is so far doing well in dividing the Democrats.
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