Mojo - May 2006

Can Economic Populism -- or "Authenticity" -- Save the Democrats?

| Mon May 15, 2006 10:46 PM EDT

Last week, some of the Democrats' most engaged proponents of pushing the Democrats leftwards -- including Governor Brian Schweitzer of Montana and author Thomas Franks -- gathered to promote economic populism at a panel discussion (scroll down to see video excerpts) about David Sirota's new book, Hostile Takeover.
The book is a useful compendium of the way big-money interests have corrupted our political process, leading to the screwing of the public through such legislation as our energy policy and Medicare Part D.

But Sirota and other progressives are spending too much of their ire targeting the Democratic Leadership Council as corporate sell-outs. In fact, the DLC, even if there's a reasonable critique to be made of their free-trade policy, offers a range of sensible ideas on security, health and the economy that may have a better shot at Congressional passage and public support than some of the ideas pushed by Sirota. Remember, only two centrist Southern Democrats, such as Clinton and Carter, have been elected to the presidency since 1964. (Full disclosure: I'm a freelance policy analyst for the DLC-affiliated Progressive Policy Institute, and did a scathing critique of the Bush administration's mental health policy last year -- hardly a flack for "Republican lite" policies.)

When I asked Sirota and the other panelists about previous Democratic presidential successes and past failures of populist messages nationally, he contended, "Any candidate who makes it clear that he will stand against big-money interests will inspire people on [their] authenticity beyond economic issues." Will that be enough? Walter Mondale and George McGovern believed what they said on issues, too, and that didn't seem to inspire people to vote for them. (The American Prospect's Harold Meyerson, pointed out, rightly, that Clinton, especially, campaigned to the left of where he actually governed, thus raising his hopes that a full-fledged populist could win the presidency.)

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Former weapons inspector confirms in new book that report on suspected "biolab" trailers was suppressed

| Mon May 15, 2006 5:49 PM EDT

A senior member of the CIA-led Iraq inspection team says that a year after the White House's "bioweapons trailers" claim was discredited, the administration continued to suppress the findings. Former U.N. arms inspector Rod Barton claims a CIA officer told him it was "politically not possible" to refute the White House claims.

Barton talks about his 2004 experiences in The Weapons Detective, which was just published by Black Ink Agenda in Australia. He is known not only for reporting that the Bush administration wove a story about weapons of mass destruction out of two ordinary trailers found in Iraq, but also for refuting Australia's claims that it had not participated in any interrogations in Iraq.

Last month, the Washington Post reported that on May 29, 2003, George W. Bush told the nation that "We have found the weapons of mass destruction." While he was justifying the war with this revelation, U.S. intelligence officials had evidence that the so-called mobile "biological laboratories" were nothing of the kind. On May 27, two days before Bush's speech, members of a secret fact-finding mission made its final report--that the trailers found in Iraq were harmless. However, this report was kept secret and put aside while Bush administration officials continued to talk about the "biolabs" for a year.

Former CIA officials deny that any information was stifled as late as 2004, before the Iraq Survey Group's final report in October.

A Post-Roe World

| Mon May 15, 2006 5:04 PM EDT

In the Atlantic this month, Jeffrey Rosen tries to imagine what would happen if the court overturned Roe v. Wade. Pandemonium, he says. Political upheaval. Democrats would probably capture Congress and the presidency. And so on. In other words, there's a lot in the piece about the politics of a post-Roe world, but less time spent on how overturning Roe would actually affect women. The brief argument in this passage seems quite wrong:

It's conceivable that a year or two after Roe, as many as a dozen red states would adopt draconian restrictions on abortions throughout pregnancy, while a larger group of more populous blue states would offer the same access to abortion as they do now. What effect would this have on the national abortion rate? … "[I]n terms of national numbers, the effect would be small," [says Gerald Rosenberg of the University of Chicago].

For example, if the South Dakota ban survived the overturning of Roe, the national impact would be negligible. In 2000, fewer than 1,000 women obtained abortions in South Dakota, representing one-tenth of 1 percent of all the abortions performed in the United States. That year, there were only two abortion providers in the state, and about 30 percent of South Dakota residents who sought abortions traveled to other states, such as Colorado and Nebraska. If the South Dakota abortion ban took effect, that percentage would certainly rise.

Believing the Worst

| Mon May 15, 2006 1:33 PM EDT

ABC News reports that one purpose of the Bush administration's domestic spying program might well be to keep tabs on the media:

A senior federal law enforcement official tells ABC News the government is tracking the phone numbers we [i.e., reporters] call in an effort to root out confidential sources.
Administration officials, of course, continue to insist that the NSA is "narrowly designed," used only to track "terrorists," rather than, say, reporters or political opponents. And "reasonable"-minded analysts and pundits continue to assure everyone that the NSA doesn't have the time or the resources to intimidate the media or engage in political warfare. But there's every reason to think the officials are lying, while the analysts and pundits are terribly naïve.

Look: The president has previously said that the NSA program was only focused on international calls—before the USA Today story broke and we learned he was lying about the program. John Negroponte previously told reporters that the NSA was "absolutely not" monitoring domestic calls—he was lying too. Dick Cheney wanted to piss all over the Constitution and engage in large-scale domestic spying after 9/11. By all accounts he didn't get what he wanted, but then again, "all accounts" have usually underestimated the amount of law-breaking going on. So yes, it's entirely possible that the administration is spying on the press, or worse.

Uppity Cleveland woman carted to psych hospital by police and ordered to a psych unit by judge

| Fri May 12, 2006 7:03 PM EDT

For as long as we have had some kind of mental health system, women who "behave incorrectly" have been ordered to undergo its treatments. At one time or another, feminists, suffragists, menopausal women, and women who question authority in any way have been sent to institutions so that they could recieve "help." The latest woman to get such help is Carol Fisher of Cleveland. Fisher is on the staff of Revolution Books, and on January 28, while she was putting Bush Step Down posters on telephone polls in Cleveland Heights, she was ordered by a police officer to take them down or face a fine. When she complied, she was asked for her ID, which she did not have on her. He then grabbed her by the arm, pushed her against a store window, and knocked her face down onto the sidewalk. He was joined by another officer, and they both pressed their feet against her back until she could not breathe. Her chin was pressed down into the concrete; Fisher has osteoradionecrosis in her jaw from radiation treatments for cancer.

Fisher was handcuffed and shackled. During this time, Fisher yelled out to everyone who passed what the posters were about. One of the police officers then told her, Fisher says, to "Shut up or I will kill you! I am sick of this anti-Bush shit! You are definitely going to the psyche ward."

She was then threatened some more and taken away in an EMS truck. At the hospital, Fisher was asked to undress in front of the police officers, which she refused to do. The officers refused to leave, so a nurse attempted to shield her while she undressed. Fisher says she was then cuffed to the bed, given an IV of some sort, and made to wait hours for a psychiatrist to interview her. By this time, members of her World Can't Wait group were in the emergency room having a confrontation with the police, who refused to let them see Fisher. Someone called the news media, who never made an appearance.

Fisher was eventually released and sent home. On May 2, she went to court and was found guilty of two counts of felonious assault of two police officers. The prosecution's "witnesses" had not seen the alleged assault; rather, they claimed that Fisher lacked respect for authority. It took a jury more than eight hours to find her guilty. According to a letter to the editor of The Free Press, the prosecution misquoted Fisher's testimony and gave the jury incorrect information about the city's arrestable offenses. When asked to clarify the law, the judge refused.

As part of the pre-sentencing procedure, the judge, Timothy McGinty, had Fisher undergo a state psychological exam. He had already surmised publicly that Fisher must be mentally unstable to resist arrest. McGinty then declared her "delusional," and on May 9, ordered her to be incarcerated in a psychiatric unit of the Cuyahoga County Jail in downtown Cleveland, where she now sits and waits; she could face a three-year prison sentence. According to Mark Crispin Miller, who has spoken with Fisher by telephone, Fisher has also been placed on suicide watch, has had her eyeglasses taken from her, and--if she refuses to take the psych exam--she will be sent to North Coast Mental Institute for a 20-day evaluation.

Pro sports and the religious right--a symbiotic relationship

| Thu May 11, 2006 8:30 PM EDT

Salon has an interesting feature on the relationship between pro football and the religious right. More and more pro athletes thank God for their victories these days, and Salon writer Tom Krattenmaker says that is because the players are "coached" by members of the evangelical wing of the Christian right. Krattenmaker claims that these religious coaches are embedded inside each of the teams in the Big Three--baseball, football, and basketball. That, he says, is why so many players make speeches with religious content and make "seemingly nonstop religious gestures on and off the field."

The players are coached in Christian evangelism by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' Athletes in Action, a group that is closely related to James Dobson's Focus on the Familiy and to Campus Crusade for Christ. Focus on the Family is virulently anti-gay and anti-feminist, and Dobson has bragged about beating both his children and his dog for "disobeying." Campus Crusade for Christ is based on Christian fundamentalism.

The chaplains offer prayer services and religious counseling to athletes who are unable to attend church; between 20 and 40% (not a very accurate statistic) of athletes attend prayer services and Bible studies. Former Minnesota Vikings running back Robert Smith, an atheist, says he does not object at all to religious services and counseling being made available to players, but he does object to certain religious groups selling their religion "with high-profile athletes."

Shirl Hoffman, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, says that the sports leagues do not interfere with these evangelical goings-on because the teams have a symbiotic relationship with the religious sects: The ministries capitalize on the popularity of pro sports, and the teams, which are increasingly embroiled in scandal, like to be identified with religion.

FCA employs 650 people and is active in team summer camps, as well as in 800 "huddles" that meet regularly in high schools and colleges. In 2003, FCA gave its Tom Landry Award to James Dobson. Many members of the sports ministries and their athlete followers are politically active for very conservative causes.

One of the things Krattenmaker brings up in his article is that stadiums are often wholly or partially financed by tax dollars, yet only the religious right is represented at the prayer groups, Bible studies and huddles. Former NFL player Anthony Prior characterizes the evangelical movement in pro sports as Christianity "packaged in a way to basically make players submissive." Prior also says--no surprise--that there is a wedge between the pro athlete Christian evangelicals and other members of the teams.

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Peace in Darfur? Not Likely.

| Thu May 11, 2006 2:31 PM EDT

Eric Reeves has a new article today on the recently-signed Abuja agreement in Sudan. Basically, it's very, very unlikely that it will halt the ongoing genocide in Darfur. There's no reason, after all, to trust the Khartoum government, which has never abided by any of the previous agreements, and has never paid a price for any of its previous violations.

More to the point, the genocidaires in Sudan have, for the past year, followed a strategy of "genocide by attrition"—making sure that badly-needed food and medical assistance can't make its way to the displaced Darfuris—and on that front, already the government has refused to give humanitarian workers the access they need, despite the fact that this was ostensibly part of the agreement.

More NSA Surveillance...

| Thu May 11, 2006 1:44 PM EDT

About a month ago, Wired interviewed a former AT&T technician who claimed that his company was letting the NSA tap its circuits, something that sounded ominous but was kind of vague. (Link thanks to Kevin Drum.) Today USA Today has more on phone companies collaborating with the NSA:

The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth, people with direct knowledge of the arrangement told USA TODAY.

The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime. This program does not involve the NSA listening to or recording conversations. But the spy agency is using the data to analyze calling patterns in an effort to detect terrorist activity, sources said in separate interviews.Last year the president insisted that the NSA was only focusing on international calls. According to USA Today, that's not entirely true, and the administration is looking at "the communications habits of millions of Americans" making domestic calls. Of course. The man lies. Now granted, gathering info about phone records is different from actually listening into those domestic calls without a warrant, but here's what the paper has to say about the legal issues:

Q: Is this legal?

A: That will be a matter of debate. In the past, law enforcement officials had to obtain a court warrant before getting calling records. Telecommunications law assesses hefty fines on phone companies that violate customer privacy by divulging such records without warrants. But in discussing the eavesdropping program last December, Bush said he has the authority to order the NSA to get information without court warrants.In other words, it's probably against the law, but the president feels like his "wartime powers" take precedence over the law. (Orin Kerr has a more detailed look at the legal issues—he says collecting phone records probably isn't unconstitutional, but could create "statutory problems under… FISA.")

But frankly, at this point, figuring out whether this program is "technically" legal or not seems beside the point. The administration has done this sort of thing way too many times—the government, recall, now claims that it can listen in on phone calls without a warrant, detain citizens indefinitely without trial, and have them tortured if it so desires—to earn the benefit of the doubt for even the smallest of steps. And as Atrios says, once you start entering legal gray areas, even with something as apparently "harmless" as looking at phone records, it's very hard to stop. If the government picks up a "suspect" thanks to information from an illegal wiretapping program, then it can't use that evidence in court, so it can't ever bring the suspect to trial, which means it has to keep the person in an extralegal detention center somewhere, presumably forever. And so on. "It's all one thing. You can't separate them." No kidding.

Congress set to form sunset commission to review federal programs

| Wed May 10, 2006 8:32 PM EDT

From time to time, we hear about plans to get rid certain federal agencies, such as OSHA and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Last month, however, these conversations became more than just ideas floated about; House majority leader John Boehner made a deal with the Republican Study Committee in which the RSC would vote for Bush's budget resolution, and the House would form a sunset commission to review federal agencies. The purpose of the review is to overhaul, consolidate, or eliminate a number of federal agencies. The commission will consist of eight members, to be appointed by George W. Bush or his allies in Congress. They will review federal programs every ten years.

On its face, the commission appears to be a useful entity for cutting waste in government, but given the Bush administration's history, it is reasonable to expect it to function as a tool for the removal of government regulation. There is nothing in the deal, for example, that would prohibit lobbyists from being appointed to the commission.

Bush's long-time friend, Clay Johnson, is the architect of the sunset commission. When Bush was governor of Texas, Johnson got rid of the state environmental protection agency and replaced its members with industry representatives. Critics of the plan are justifiably calling the commission a dream come true for the planners of the Reagan government. Once the commission is formed, officials of various government programs will have to "plead their case" in order to remain operative.

There are currently two bills that would advance the formation of the sunset commission. One, the Brady Bill, exempts the commission from various sunshine laws, and the Tiehrt gives the commission subpoena power.

Genocide Or Not?

| Wed May 10, 2006 7:19 PM EDT

Er, I don't quite get Matt Yglesias' argument about Darfur in the American Prospect. He argues that what's going on in Sudan isn't an "unambiguous" genocide—which would mean, according to him, an "ethnic genocide." Instead, what's going on is "counter-guerilla mass slaughter," which supposedly makes intervention more difficult:

[I]t remains the case that the leaders in Khartoum didn't wake up one morning and just decide to exterminate Darfur's inhabitants. The mass killing was adopted as a strategy in the midst of a war, and at the intersection of counter-guerilla mass killing and ethnic warfare lies the ambiguous genocide.

Does it matter? On one level, no. War crimes are war crimes, brutality is brutality, slaughter is slaughter, and we all have a duty to reduce its incidence. But once ambiguity re-enters the picture, so should common sense. Faced with counter-guerilla mass slaughter, you can't just stop the killing, any intervention necessarily entails taking a side on the basic question of the war. Advocates of intervening have a duty to explain what it is they intend to do -- create an independent Darfur? Controlled by whom? They also have a duty to answer, rather than simply dismiss, questions about the big picture of American foreign policy. How would attacking another Arab country affect America's larger security concerns? Would circumventing the UN merely provoke protests from China and like-minded human rights averse dictators, or will developing world democracies like India, South Africa, and Brazil see it as imperialism run amok? Okay, all fair questions, but we'd have to think about all of this regardless of what "type" of mass killing was going on. Even if Darfur was facing an "unambiguous" genocide, whatever that means, it's not like stopping that would somehow be a simpler matter than stopping "counter-guerilla mass slaughter."

In both cases, we'd have to think about what comes after intervention, what sort of settlement would resolve the conflict, how to enforce the peace, and what the effects of intervening would be. Now perhaps the answers would be different, depending on what was motivating the conflict—mass slaughter fuelled by "pure" ethnic hatred, for instance, might even be harder to resolve than, say, mass slaughter fuelled by a political conflict—but you still ask the same questions. Both situations require "common sense." So unless we're suggesting that the wholesale killing of Darfuris is somehow semi-justifiable because it's part of a counterinsurgency campaign—and no one seems to be saying that—then this seems like a lot of meaningless hair-splitting.