As the Senate begins its hearings on the nomination of John Ashcroft as Attorney General, it is important to focus on the different roles that his office plays in the administration of justice in
Maybe that Karl Rove ain't such a genius. In the past few weeks Democrats have, with a touch of glee, been wondering about George W. Bush's Svengali-strategist as Rove has stepped into several cow pies. Shortly after the Jeffords jump--for which Rove took his lumps--the Associated Press revealed that in March Rove met with senior Intel executives seeking federal approval of a merger of two chip manufacturers--at a time when Rove held between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of Intel stock as part of a portfolio worth $2 million. Rove claimed he had not discussed this particular matter and merely referred the Intel guys to others in the government. But if someone knocks on the door of a Bush Administration official and can say, "Karl sent me," does that not help the visitor? Several weeks later, the Justice Department OK'd the merger--and Intel politely sent a thank-you note to several Bushies, including Rove.
In addition to his ethics, Rove's judgment has been questioned, as his ham-handed role in contentious policy decisions has made the Bush White House appear as political as its predecessor--a tough task! On the campaign trail, Bush the Outsider blasted the Slickster in Chief for governing by polls and setting policy by focus groups. Yet Rove has pushed the Administration to oppose stem-cell research, which involves human embryos, to advance his plan to cement Catholic voters into the GOP bloc. And when Bush announced that the Navy would halt bombing practice on Vieques in Puerto Rico in 2003, angry Hill Republicans questioned Rove's crucial part in the decision and assailed him for placing politics above national security.
Other bad news for Rove: A much-ballyhooed (and front-page) New York Times/CBS poll in mid-June showed Bush's key numbers in decline. Have Bush's (anti-)environment stands and coziness with Big Bidness taken a toll? In other words, is Rove losing his knack?
The White House stood by him--for Rove is the White House--and quickly tried to douse the Rove/Intel story. "My level of confidence with Karl Rove," declared Bush, "has never been higher." White House press-spinner Ari Fleischer pooh-poohed the Rove matter, claiming, "The American people are tired of these open-ended investigations and fishing expeditions." How did he know? Did he take a poll? And how convenient for the GOP to gripe about free-for-all investigations now. Dan Burton, the conspiracy-chasing Republican chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, who investigated every speck of controversy hurled at the Clintons, is still pursuing the Clintonites, most recently by probing a nine-year-old prosecution in Florida that tangentially involves Janet Reno. In any event, when Fleischer made his statement, there was no Rove investigation under way. Henry Waxman, the ranking Democrat on Burton's committee, had merely written Rove, asking him to answer six questions regarding his stock holdings and whether he had conducted meetings with representatives of other companies in which he owned stock, including Enron, the Texas energy company. (At press time, Waxman had yet to receive a reply.)
Perhaps Democratic senators--who, unlike Waxman, possess the power to initiate an investigation--ought to consider poking into Rove's finances and, more important, the influence of corporate contributors and lobbyists at the White House. (Of course, the latter would invite similar questions about the Democratic Party.) Yet they have not pounced. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle said publicly, "Democrats want to legislate, not investigate." But Waxman and Democratic Representative John Dingell have tried to push beyond the Rove/Intel episode. They asked the General Accounting Office, the Congressional watchdog, to examine the meetings of Vice President Cheney's energy task force and determine who--and what interests--helped shape the Bush energy plan.
Cheney's office balked. "We have not released a list of names so that people could choose whether or not they wanted to air [their] views publicly," explained Mary Matalin, a Cheney aide. Funny, Republicans weren't this respectful of privacy several years ago, when they demanded information about the proceedings of Hillary Clinton's healthcare task force. But few Democrats have raised a fuss about White House reluctance to release the information. The GAO, though, told Cheney he must comply with its request. And still Cheney has not turned over the material, setting up a potential clash.
The bloom may be off the Rove, but he's far from wilted. After all, Rove got a fellow widely derided as a boob into the White House, and then he guided a gigantic relieve-the-rich tax cut through Congress. Those are damn good first--if not last--laughs. Now Bush can also thank Rove (and Cheney) for helping to show that his White House is a down-home hoedown of corporate and political favoritism.
Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill is turning out to be a dangerous crank.
When George W. Bush announced from Sweden on June 14 that he planned to pull the US Navy out of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques by 2003, it struck some as odd when he referred to the people of Vieques, all US citizens, as "our friends and neighbors" who "don't want us there." It was as though he was saying Puerto Rico is a foreign country.
In reality, Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. A consequence of this is the situation in Vieques, where the Navy has reigned over people who at another period in history were simply subjects. But the people of Puerto Rico are also human beings with a right to live and prosper that brute force cannot deny. And the fact that they are US citizens makes them more than just the President's "friends and neighbors," and connects their plight to the United States in a very direct way that the President cannot ignore.
The struggle to force the Navy out of Vieques, which goes back sixty years to when the Navy first took over most of the small island, has gathered steam since the accidental killing of a civilian Navy employee two years ago. Besides the environmental destruction and resulting health problems associated with the Navy's presence, now there was an actual victim to mourn and organize around. The people of Vieques and Puerto Rico were outraged, and the consensus that emerged was dazzling for an island nation long divided about its political status.
The pro-statehood governor at the time, Pedro Rosselló, cut a highly unpopular deal with President Clinton to hold a referendum this November to ask the people of Vieques whether they want the Navy to leave by 2003. The action cost his party the gubernatorial race last year. Buttressed by protests on Vieques in the rest of Puerto Rico and by the stateside Puerto Rican community, the new pro-Commonwealth governor, Sila María Calderón, called for an earlier referendum, to be held at the end of July, and has led the movement to have the Navy leave Vieques immediately.
In addition to such opponents of the Navy bombings as Rubén Berríos Martínez, president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party, the move to oust the Navy has gained unlikely supporters such as singer Ricky Martin, boxer Felix Trinidad, actor Benicio del Toro and the new Miss Universe, Denise Quiñones August. Backing has also come from the African-American leadership, with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton joining the protest, and from Republican New York Governor George Pataki, whom Calderón recently endorsed for re-election even though she's a Democrat. Some of these unusual alliances result from politicians' perception of the growing clout of Latino voters and some from Puerto Rico's need for GOP support in Washington for federal funding for the island, which has no votes in Congress (it has a nonvoting resident commissioner in the House).
There were also lawsuits against the Navy by people like high-profile environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr. and the arrests of more than 180 protesters in Vieques, including Sharpton and three New York Puerto Rican politicos. There was even a virtual protest that tied up the Navy's website for a while. The Vieques issue has gone mainstream.
Besides bringing environmental and health problems to Vieques, the Navy's presence has been an assault on democracy. The Navy has reneged on a succession of agreements it made with Puerto Rico to respect the environment and economy of Vieques and reinvest in its development. The treatment of the many protesters by Navy personnel has also brought criticism about the abuse of their rights, especially after prominent Puerto Rican officials and members of Congress were physically intimidated by the Navy, with unnecessary body searches and manhandling.
Another issue is the strong nexus between the US military and the federal judiciary in Puerto Rico, a politically unhealthy alliance that is probably more responsible than anything else for the inappropriate sentences given to many of those who practiced civil disobedience on Vieques. The federal judge meting out these harsh sentences, who is presiding over one of the major environmental and civil rights suits on Vieques, is Chief Justice Hector Laffitte, who represented the police officers who murdered Puerto Rican independentistas in the notorious Cerro Maravilla case in 1980. There has been widespread speculation about possible ties between him and the Navy, especially after his overriding of the established federal lottery system for assigning cases so that he could personally dispose of the ones concerning Vieques.
Bush's decision to stop the bombing by 2003 was an obvious concession to the fact that the people of Vieques would choose to do this anyway in the referendum. By eliminating the embarrassment of losing in a popular vote among the more than 9,000 residents of Vieques, Bush could save face and have the bonus of looking as though he was being responsive to the growing "Latino vote." The hard right in Congress and the media criticized him, however, for compromising US military readiness, while everyone else, including the odd duo of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Governor Pataki, felt it was too little, too late, and called for the Navy's immediate withdrawal.
Meanwhile, the President's political expediency on this issue resulted in his undermining of the Navy's complaints about the lack of alternative training sites, which was the only compelling basis it had for arguing that it needed to remain in Vieques. Now that the Navy has resumed its bombing of the island, leading to further protests, we will soon see whether the contradictions of colonial administration in a postcolonial world will come home to roost. But whatever the outcome, it is clear that Vieques has become yet another symbol that the costs of empire may be too high even for the powerful in this new century.
"How would you feel if your wife and children were brutally raped before being hacked to death by soldiers during a military massacre of 800 civilians, and then two governments tried to cover up the killings?" It's a question that won't be asked of Elliott Abrams at a Senate confirmation hearing--because George W. Bush, according to press reports, may appoint Abrams to a National Security Council staff position that (conveniently!) does not require Senate approval. Moreover, this query is one of a host of rude, but warranted, questions that could be lobbed at Abrams, the Iran/contra player who was an assistant secretary of state during the Reagan years and a shaper of that Administration's controversial--and deadly--policies on Latin America and human rights. His designated spot in the new regime: NSC's senior director for democracy, human rights and international operations. (At press time, the White House and Abrams were neither confirming nor denying his return to government.)
Bush the Second has tapped a number of Reagan/Bush alums who were involved in Iran/contra business for plum jobs: Colin Powell, Richard Armitage, Otto Reich and John Negroponte. But Abrams's appointment--should it come to pass--would mark the most generous of rehabilitations. Not only did Abrams plead guilty to two misdemeanor counts of lying to Congress about the Reagan Administration's contra program, he was also one of the fiercest ideological pugilists of the 1980s, a bad-boy diplomat wildly out of sync with Bush's gonna-change-the-tone rhetoric. Abrams, a Democrat turned Republican who married into the cranky Podhoretz neocon clan, billed himself as a "gladiator" for the Reagan Doctrine in Central America--which entailed assisting thuggish regimes and militaries in order to thwart leftist movements and dismissing the human rights violations of Washington's cold war partners.
One Abrams specialty was massacre denial. During a Nightline appearance in 1985, he was asked about reports that the US-funded Salvadoran military had slaughtered civilians at two sites the previous summer. Abrams maintained that no such events had occurred. And had the US Embassy and the State Department conducted an investigation? "My memory," he said, "is that we did, but I don't want to swear to it, because I'd have to go back and look at the cables." But there had been no State Department inquiry; Abrams, in his lawyerly fashion, was being disingenuous. Three years earlier, when two American journalists reported that an elite, US-trained military unit had massacred hundreds of villagers in El Mozote, Abrams told Congress that the story was commie propaganda, as he fought for more US aid to El Salvador's military. The massacre, as has since been confirmed, was real. And in 1993 after a UN truth commission, which examined 22,000 atrocities that occurred during the twelve-year civil war in El Salvador, attributed 85 percent of the abuses to the Reagan-assisted right-wing military and its death-squad allies, Abrams declared, "The Administration's record on El Salvador is one of fabulous achievement." Tell that to the survivors of El Mozote.
But it wasn't his lies about mass murder that got Abrams into trouble. After a contra resupply plane was shot down in 1986, Abrams, one of the coordinators of Reagan's pro-contra policy (along with the NSC's Oliver North and the CIA's Alan Fiers), appeared several times before Congressional committees and withheld information on the Administration's connection to the secret and private contra-support network. He also hid from Congress the fact that he had flown to London (using the name "Mr. Kenilworth") to solicit a $10 million contribution for the contras from the Sultan of Brunei. At a subsequent closed-door hearing, Democratic Senator Thomas Eagleton blasted Abrams for having misled legislators, noting that Abrams's misrepresentations could lead to "slammer time." Abrams disagreed, saying, "You've heard my testimony." Eagleton cut in: "I've heard it, and I want to puke." On another occasion, Republican Senator Dave Durenberger complained, "I wouldn't trust Elliott any further than I could throw Ollie North." Even after Abrams copped a plea with Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh, he refused to concede that he'd done anything untoward. Abrams's Foggy Bottom services were not retained by the First Bush, but he did include Abrams in his lame-duck pardons of several Iran/contra wrongdoers.
Abrams was as nasty a policy warrior as Washington had seen in decades. He called foes "vipers." He said that lawmakers who blocked contra aid would have "blood on their hands"--while he defended US support for a human-rights-abusing government in Guatemala. When Oliver North was campaigning for the Senate in 1994 and was accused of having ignored contra ties to drug dealers, Abrams backed North and claimed "all of us who ran that program...were absolutely dedicated to keeping it completely clean and free of any involvement by drug traffickers." Yet in 1998 the CIA's own inspector general issued a thick report noting that the Reagan Administration had collaborated with suspected drug traffickers while managing the secret contra war.
So Bush the Compassionate may hand the White House portfolio on human rights to the guy who lied and wheedled to aid and protect human-rights abusers. As Adm. William Crowe Jr. said of Abrams in 1989, "This snake's hard to kill."
A Nation analysis finds that benefits to Bush, Cheney and the Cabinet could top million.
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.
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.
George W. Bush's energy plan fudges the facts, raises false alarms, shamelessly peddles halfhearted green measures--all to provide a cover under which to slide the oil industry's wish list. Jimmy Carter, who knows a real energy crisis, in a Washington Post Op-Ed accused the administration of using "misinformation and scare tactics to justify such environmental atrocities as drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge." Bush cites California's troubles as a call to action for a plan that does not address them. It revives nuclear power with no ideas on where to safely put the waste, trashes environmental regulations and airily dismisses international concerns about global warming, as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan pointedly noted in a little-reported speech at Tufts University on May 20. "We do not face a choice between economy and ecology," Annan said. "In fact, the opposite is true: Unless we protect resources and the earth's natural capital, we shall not be able to sustain economic growth."
Bush's plan, crafted in secret sessions with input from industry reps and none from consumer advocates, is a mélange of vague ("make energy security a priority of our trade and foreign policy"), sometimes contradictory suggestions and steps the Bush Administration can take unilaterally (easing regulations for the electric, oil and nuclear industries). It will unleash much squabbling in Congress, as legislators take up other portions of the package. Not only will enviros face off against industros on assorted fronts--the consensus of the moment is that Bush's plan to drill for oil in the Alaskan wilderness is near-DOA in Congress--but energy-producing states will square off against consuming states.
Industries themselves could be at each other's throats, competing to gain an edge via legislation. Natural gas companies, for instance, have no interest in seeing environmental rules relaxed for coal-burning utilities. Electricity cooperatives will wrangle with electric utilities. Northeast power-generators could tussle with Midwest utilities over emissions. Conservative free-marketeers will decry using the tax code to assist one industry or another. All in all, this is a full-employment project for Washington lobbyists. Expect campaign contributions from energy companies to rise faster than the price of gasoline.
But the many fault lines and divides have yet to be defined, and the possibility of Jim Jeffords's switch (still not officially announced at press time--see the editorial, following) injects a new element of uncertainty into the mix. Democrats are in some disarray; senators and House members have home-state concerns. Think of John Breaux and Mary Landrieu of oil-producing Louisiana, who already have broken with their party to support a tax bill resembling the Bush plan. As the tax-bill fight demonstrates, Republicans need only to peel away a few Bush-friendly Democrats in the Senate to succeed. And in the House, as one senior Democratic staffer notes, "there are a number of Blue Dog Democrats who get their money from the same people who fund Bush and Cheney." But at the same time, there are House Republicans--including several in California--worrying about energy legislation that rewards price-gougers and gives no short-term relief to consumers.
One liberal-leaning Democratic senator surveys the landscape this way: "Senate Democrats should be able to stick together on much of the environmental and policy matters regarding, say, regulations and more resources for conservation and alternatives. It's going to be much harder on the populist front. They're not all going to want to be tough on the industries."
The Democrats' message so far is that Bush and Cheney are just pimping for Big Oil and other energy interests while trampling the environment. Perhaps that will resonate with voters. But it remains to be seen if Democrats can sell a bold alternative approach that promotes conservation, efficiency and renewable energy. At a recent meeting with reporters, House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt dismissed the notion of raising fuel-efficiency standards for cars and SUVs. Like his Republican foes, he fears proposals that might impinge on the American way of life (read: consuming oil in gluttonous amounts).
Republicans think that blaming environmental extremists for the nation's (real or imagined) energy troubles--like California's deregulation mess--is good politics, while the Democrats almost giddily believe environment/energy to be Bush's main vulnerability. Given the muddy legislative swirl Bush's energy plan will stir up, the public will be lucky if the debate stays that starkly defined.
Environmentalist groups should forcibly inject broader public interest considerations into the mix and seek to provoke a real national energy dialogue that goes beyond green-versus-brown accusations and political point-scoring. Any serious, comprehensive energy policy would start by taking the $100 billion the Pentagon wants for a technically dubious National Missile Defense system and investing it in enhancing proven alternative-energy and efficiency technologies. Solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, hydrogen fuel cells (the idea Al Gore pushed during the late campaign and Bush derided, then stole for his energy plan)--all these renewable technologies are proven and feasible. A multibillion-dollar federal investment in them would assure their cost-effectiveness and wider use.
Bush has declared an energy crisis and opened the door to a national discourse on saving energy. The Democrats should say, "Thanks, George," and take the opportunity to supplant his hot air with action.