It's been six months since nineteen fanatics controlled by Al Qaeda seized four airliners and wreaked bloody, fiery havoc on the United States. In the aftermath, stunned and angry Americans gave the Bush Administration their full-throated support for a war against the perpetrators of the atrocities and those who directed, financed or harbored them. Now, at the half-year mark, Bush's approval rating for this war still hovers above 80 percent, but hairline cracks are appearing in the consensus.
As John Nichols reports in this issue, Representative Dennis Kucinich's recent speech criticizing Bush's war went where no Democrat had gone before. His message--that Americans had not enlisted for the wider military effort the Administration is now undertaking or for the curtailment of civil liberties at home--evidently struck a nerve. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Senator Robert Byrd lectured Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz that there would be no more blank checks for the Pentagon, while Senate majority leader Tom Daschle mildly reproached the Administration by asking whatever happened to Osama bin Laden and Muhammad Omar.
Daschle's cautious criticism struck a Republican nerve. Senate minority leader Trent Lott blasted Daschle for trying to "divide the country." But the ancient dodge of hiding behind what Senator John Kerry in a recent speech called the "false cloak of patriotism" may not work this time around. Polls show that a majority of respondents don't want Bush to expand the war beyond Afghanistan unless there is hard evidence that the nation targeted is harboring terrorists. The renewal of fighting in Afghanistan with US troops heavily engaged is a reminder that there is an unfinished job in Afghanistan, not only mopping up Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants but helping the central government extend its writ outside Kabul. This is no time to embark on a global crusade against nebulous "evil."
The casualties US forces have been taking in the new fighting will mute the criticism, but Democrats, who had unwisely pledged to allow "no daylight" between them and Bush on the war, seem to be positioning themselves to begin asking some impolite questions. These are long overdue. The Administration has recently been committing US troops to a series of problematic missions, none of them more than distantly related to the original war on Al Qaeda authorized by Congress. In the strategically important Philippines, US "trainers" are in country aiding the hunt for a band of kidnappers; in Georgia US instructors will be at risk of becoming caught up in a civil war. There is high-level talk about committing US combat troops to Colombia's civil war, cynically transforming counternarcotics into counterterrorism. And then there is Iraq, glittering prize for a politically potent alliance of Pentagon hawks and Beltway conservatives.
Now that Democrats in Congress have regained their lost voice, they should use it more--asking tough questions, grilling officials about the new commitments, about exit and entrance strategies (i.e., what objectives are these troops being sent to achieve?). One might think Congress would be in a feisty mood these days after the way this Administration has ignored it--not even telling it about those secret bunkers where senior officials will ride out a terrorist strike. Apparently, the White House thinks Congress is expendable. It's certainly conducting the war as if it does.
Dennis Kucinich never doubted that millions of Americans had deep concerns about George W. Bush's ever-expanding war on ill-defined foes abroad and on civil liberties at home. But the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair admits he underestimated the depth of the discomfort until February 17, when he delivered a speech to the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action, in which he declared, "Let us pray that our country will stop this war."
Recalling the Congressional vote authorizing the President's response to the September 11 terrorist attacks--a resolution supported by Kucinich and all but one member of Congress, California Democrat Barbara Lee--the Ohioan thundered, "We did not authorize an eye for an eye. Nor did we ask that the blood of innocent people, who perished on September 11, be avenged with the blood of innocent villagers in Afghanistan. We did not authorize the Administration to wage war anytime, anywhere, anyhow it pleases. We did not authorize war without end. We did not authorize a permanent war economy. Yet we are upon the threshold of a permanent war economy."
Kucinich's "Prayer for America" speech was interrupted by repeated standing ovations. But the real measure of the message's resonance came as the text of the speech circulated on the Internet--where a genuine worldwide web of opposition to the Administration's actions led to the posting of Kucinich's words on websites (including www.thenation.com) and dispatched them via e-mail. Within days, Kucinich received 10,000-plus e-mails. Many echoed New Jerseyan Thomas Minet's sentiments: "Since the 'Axis of Evil' State of the Union Address, I have been searching like Diogenes with his lantern for one honest person in Congress who would have the guts to speak out about the attack on Democracy being mounted by the Bush Administration. It has been a frustrating search indeed, and I was just about ready to give up hope when I ran across 'A Prayer for America.' Thank God for this man's courage." Others simply read, "Kucinich for President."
For Kucinich, a former Cleveland mayor who led Democratic opposition to the US bombing of Yugoslavia and proposed establishing a Cabinet-level Department of Peace, speaking out against military adventuring is not new. But he says he's never experienced so immediate and enthusiastic a response. "We can't print out the messages as fast as we are receiving them," he says. "But I've read through a lot of them now, and they touch on the same themes: The Administration's actions are no longer appropriate, and it is time for Congress to start asking questions. The people understand something most of Congress does not: There is nothing unpatriotic about challenging this Administration's policies."
Kucinich was not the first Congressmember to express concern about Bush's plans. Lee cast her cautionary vote in September. In October, responding to reports of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Representative Jim McDermott criticized the speed with which the Administration had taken military action and the failure of the White House to adequately consult Congress. In December, Kucinich, McDermott and Lee joined five other House Democrats in signing a letter to Bush, written by Representative Tammy Baldwin, which noted, "We are concerned by those in your Administration and among our own ranks in the Congress who appear to be making the case for broad expansion of this military campaign beyond Afghanistan. Without presenting clear and compelling evidence that other nations were involved in the September 11 attacks, it is inappropriate to expand the conflict." Another letter, by Representative Peter DeFazio, called on the White House to comply with the War Powers Resolution before expanding the war. In February Senator Robert Byrd said that Congress should no longer hand the President a "blank check." Senate majority leader Tom Daschle suggested the war "will have failed" without the capture of Osama bin Laden--a statement rebuked by Republicans, who want no measure of success or failure applied to this war.
But Kucinich's speech was a clarion call. "For most people, Kucinich's speech represents the clearest Congressional criticism they have heard about the conduct of the war, and of the Administration's plans to expand it. That's enormously significant," said Midge Miller, who helped launch Senator Eugene McCarthy's antiwar challenge to President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. "Citizens look for Congressional opposition to organize around--they look for leaders to say something. When I read Kucinich's speech, I thought, This could be a turning point."
It has certainly been a turning point for Kucinich. Overwhelmed by invitations to speak, he says his top priority will be to work with Baldwin and others to encourage a broader Congressional debate over international priorities, Pentagon spending and the stifling of dissent. Expect battles in the House Democratic Caucus, where minority leader Dick Gephardt has been more cautious than Daschle about criticizing Bush. But Kucinich thinks more Democrats will begin to echo Senator Byrd's challenge to blank-check military spending in a time of tight budgets. Kucinich plans to encourage grassroots activists to tell members of Congress it is not merely necessary but politically safe to challenge "the Patriot Games, the Mind Games, the War Games of an unelected President and his unelected Vice President."
Kucinich, whose working-class district elected a conservative Republican before him, is confident Democrats from even the most competitive districts can safely join him in questioning the war. "The key," he says, "is to recognize that there is a great deal of unity in America around some basic values: peace and security, protection of the planet, a good quality of life for themselves and for others. When people express their patriotism, they are not saying--as some would suggest--that they no longer believe in these things. There's nothing unpatriotic about asserting human values and defending democratic principles. A lot of Americans are telling me this is the highest form of patriotism."
Congress returns--will the Democrats challenge Bush?
It was a mistake--and a beaut--in Matt Bivens's piece "The Enron Box" where he confused the Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers. It is hereby duly acknowledged and regretted. But what really astonished us was the way it unleashed a slick triple play by the Right-Wing Conspirators (a Class C club that plays the Washington-New York corridor). You've heard of Tinker to Evers to Chance? Well, this was Wall Street Journal to The Weekly Standard to Fox News's Brit Hume. The WSJ caught Bivens's blooper; then The Weekly Standard grabbed amd waved it long enough to say "Nyah, nyah" before Brit (Mr. Inside) Hume gobbled up the ball and hinted darkly of cover-up (or something) on Fox News. This dazzling play illustrates how the opposing team will seize on a minor miscue and use it to clear George W. Bush of any involvement in the Enron scandal. OK, we admit the error shows we are sometimes sports-challenged; next time we'll check with a baseball expert like George Will. Lest the real issues be lost out in right field, however, we bring you a comment on Bush and baseball posted by the witty sportswriter Charles Pierce, a commentator on NPRs Only a Game and the author of Sports Guy: In Search of Corkball, Warroad Hockey, Hooters Golf, Tiger Woods, and the Big, Big Game. He posted it on Jim Romenesko's Media News (www.poynter.org):
"As to The Nation's unfortunate collision with the national pastime--the passage ought to read:
'When George Bush co-owned the Texas Rangers with a bunch of businessmen who had all the real money, construction began on The Ballpark At Arlington, after the ownership group finagled the eminent domain laws in order to swindle some property owners out of the market price for some valuable land. The property owners sued and won, but The Ballpark arose anyway, enabling Mr. Bush to cash out his original investment several times over without ever having done any actual work. This helped launch the successful portion of his political career, culminating in his becoming President of the United States, a job from which he took an evening off last spring in order to be the guest of Kenneth Lay for the opening of Enron Field in Houston. Mr. Lay was CEO of Enron and a well-known political supporter of the president who, these days, of course, would not recognize him from a box of turnips.'
"The Nation, I am sure, regrets the error."
Indeed we do.
For weeks, conservative commentators and Bush White House defenders have been huffing that the Enron matter is a corporate scandal, not a political controversy--that it is an affair of business sku
When Congress voted to authorize the Bush Administration to use military force in response to the September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Representative Barbara Lee stood alone in opposition to what she saw as a "rush to judgment." Lee, the California Democrat who holds the Bay Area seat once occupied by antiwar activist Ron Dellums, spoke with John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, this week.
THE NATION: How did you reach the decision to oppose authorizing the use of force?
LEE: I was at the National Cathedral in Washington. I went to the memorial service on the Friday after the attacks and I prayed. I said to myself, "You've got to figure this one out." I was dealing with all the grief and sorrow and the loss of life, and it was very personal because a member of my staff had lost a cousin in the Pennsylvania crash. I was thinking about my responsibility as a member of Congress to try to insure that this never happens again. I listened to the remarks of the clergy. Many of them made profound statements. But I was struck by what one of them said: "As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore." That was such a wise statement, and it reflected not only what I was feeling but also my understanding of the threats we continue to face. When I left the cathedral, I was fairly resolved.
THE NATION: Were you also concerned about the constitutional implications of the vote?
LEE: Absolutely. Given the three branches of government, and given that each has a role in the making of monumental decisions such as this, I thought the Congress had a responsibility in this instance especially to step back and say,"Let's not rush to judgment. Let us insist that our democracy works by insuring that the checks and balances work and that the Congress is a part of the decision-making process in terms of when we go to war and with whom.... I think we disenfranchised the American people when we took their representatives out of the decision-making on whether to go to war with a specific nation.
THE NATION: Were you surprised that no other members of Congress voted with you?
LEE: It never dawned on me that I would cast the only vote against this resolution. Many members asked me to change my position. They were friends, and they said, "You do not want to be out there alone." I said, "Oh, no, don't worry. There will be others." When there weren't, I said, "Oh my God." I could not believe it. It was an awesome feeling. And a lonely feeling.
THE NATION: You mentioned that other members said, "You don't want to be out there alone." Do you think other members shared your concerns but were unwilling to cast a risky vote with emotions running so high?
LEE: If you read the floor statements. you'll see that there are many members of Congress who share my concerns. I think that, when I cast that vote, I was speaking for other people in Congress and outside Congress who want a more deliberative approach.
THE NATION: At the same time, you have received precisely the sort of criticism that most politicians fear.
LEE: I've been called a traitor, a coward, a communist, all the awful stuff. It's been quite difficult for me. But I still believe that I cast the right vote. My district, I think, understands this vote.... I've gotten probably 20,000 e-mails. At first, there were a lot of very harsh messages. But now we are hearing more from people who are saying, "Yes, let's use some restraint. Yes, let's break the cycle of violence if we can." I think the further we get away from that tragic day, the more we will hear those voices of reason.
The lesson of fifteen years is that real change requires a people's movement.
If they connect well with voters in 2002, they'll have an edge in a weak economy.
"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.