Friday, December 30, 2005

8 Ideas for Democrats in 2006

I remember almost going crazy in 1994 over the Republicans' "Contract with America". The idea of Newt Gingrich solemnly entering into a covenant with the American people seemed, well, repellent. I can't remember many of its details today, but I do remember that it seemed to give the Republican a united vision. That November, they won a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.

Though I don't remember many details, I do remember the Republicans focused on Congressional scandals to drive the idea that Democrats had grown corrupt and power mad after 40 years of controlling the Congress (I also remember a lot of talk about "term limits" which mysteriously died down once Republicans got control of the House). The scandals back then were penny ante stuff compared with what is going on now--there was a "franking" scandal involving members of Congress using postage for personal business. I imagine as much as hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars were lost. Compare that to the millions Republican Congressman Duke Cunningham raked in from defense contractors in exchange for helping them get Pentagon contracts, or the indictment accusing Tom DeLay of using illegal corporate contributions to win an election, or the brewing Abramoff scandal, said to involve 20 members of Congress.

Democrats are onto this already. Senate minority leader Harry Reid is launching a "red state" tour aimed at focusing attention on Republican scandals. This is a good start and should be a central plank in the Democrats' platform for 2006. Here is a bare bones platform, including that idea, as well as others.

1. Corruption and cronyism: focus on specific scandals involving Republicans in Congress and on cronies Bush appointed to his administration (think FEMA's Brownie). The idea is that Republicans are out of control and unchecked--having one party control the excutive and legislative branches is not good for Americans. Republicans are a party of corruption and illicit favors; Democrats will clean this up. Specific ideas: real penalties for ethical violations by members of Congress, real scrutiny of presidential appointees, put teeth in campaign finance law enforcement to punish violations swiftly.

2. Helping American families: the idea here is that some people are doing great in recent years, but many are working hard, playing by the rules and continue to struggle. A catastrophic event like a medical emergency or a lost job can push families into bankrupcty. Go back to the Clinton promise: Americans who play by the rules and work hard should be able to make it, should be able to raise children, should not be forced into bankruptcy. Specific ideas: policies that reward work (reverse capital gains tax cuts and income tax breaks for the wealthy, give tax breaks to middle and working class families, fix alternative minimum tax that hurts many middle class families), health care reform--gradually expand Medicaid (perhaps start with coverage of all children under 18, or under 12). Fund it with money that comes from repealing tax cuts for the wealthy.

3. Break our dependence on fossil fuels from the Middle East: first step should be convening an open forum to discuss solutions (in contrast with Dick Cheney's closed door session with energy bigwigs who got to write energy policy). Invite experts in the field, but also get input from ordinary Americans. All options on the table--we can look at increased drilling at home, though be realistic about how much oil that will yield and what environmental consequences could be.

4. Get serious about defending America: the bipartisan 9/11 commission gave the administration something like 4 F's, 12 D's and 2 incompletes on a "report card" for protecting America. Address all of these issues within specific time period, perhaps six months. Remind Americans we are glad no attacks have occurred since 9/11 but we cannot rest on that and must take warnings seriously. There were warnings before 9/11 that we did not heed because there had been no attacks on American soil and we thought we were safe. We can't let that happen again.

5. Bring focus to war on terror: we took our eye off the ball (i.e away from Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, who attacked us on 9/11) when we invaded Iraq based on misrepresentations. We need a comprehensive plan to address threats abroad, not just in Iraq. Afghanistan is still a mess, and Al Qaeda operates around the world. Follow Congressman John Murtha's plan to redeploy troops from Iraq within 6 months and send them to other places where they are needed, retaining a force near Iraq that can return if necessary.

6. Real support for the troops: our troops deserve the best. They shouldn't have to ask loved ones to send them necessary equipment, at their own expense. We will make sure they have everything they need--from vehicle armor to personal armor. We will end the practice of awarding no-bid contracts to companies like Halliburton that then defraud the Pentagon and serve our troops expired meals. We will make sure their loved ones are supported at home with a safety net for families that cannot make it financially or emotionally when a family member is called to duty. We will make sure our troops receive adequate health benefits and top health care. Our troops do everything we ask of them, we should be ashamed not to give them everything they need and deserve.

7. Address presidential abuses of power that have accompanied war on terror: no more torture, shut down the secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe, force the President to obey the Constitution rather than bypassing federal law and ordering secret warrantless spying, draft a bipartisan Patriot Act that allows us to go after terrorists while respecting the U.S. Constitution. Point out we are losing respect abroad; the United States is no longer known as a defender of human rights, but rather as an abuser. This hurts our ability to gain necessary allies in the war on terror. Most importantly, torture, secret prisons, indefinite detentions, and secret spying are simply not consonant with American values.

8. Make sure the administration fulfills its promise to rebuild New Orleans and to address underlying issues of poverty, as President Bush promised.

That's all for now. Maybe someone can up with 2 more ideas, and/or a catchy name for the platform...

It's Not About the Leak

It has been reported that the Justice Department is opening an investigation to determine who told the New York Times about the administration's secret warrantless spying program. According to a White House spokesman (Trent Duffy, pinchhitting for Scott McClellan), the investigation is an important one because "the leaking of classified information is a serious issue."

Exactly how dumb does the administration think we are? We just watched them soft-pedal the Valerie Plame leak for the last couple of years. Bush took that leak of classified information somewhat less than seriously. The New York Daily News reported( ) Bush knew for more than two years that Rove had spoken to the media about Plame. But the president did nothing. Rove still works for the White House, while Plame's career ended when her cover was blown. Although Cheney chief of staff Scooter Libby has been indicted, the White House has not so much as reprimanded anyone involved in the leak.

For some inscrutable reason, right wingers argue that leaking Plame's cover to the press was not all that serious. To recap why it matters, Plame was a NOC (nonofficial cover) CIA agent. In a nutshell, that means she had a fake identity (as a private consultant) that served as her cover while she conducted intelligence work on behalf of the United States. We do not know much about the details of what her work involved (remember, it was all classified before her cover was blown), but it has been reported that her work involved gathering intelligence concerning weapons of mass destruction. Serious stuff.

How anyone decides that leaking an undercover CIA agent's identity for political purposes is no big deal, while leaking the existence of unlawful activity by the White House is a grave problem demanding immediate action is beyond me. But the real point here is not to get distracted. The administration would like nothing better than for attention to shift away from its illegal spying onto who leaked this information. They'd be just as happy if the media started debating which is worse: leaking Plame's identity or leaking the existence of the secret spying program.

Let's not play their game. The Justice Department is investigating the leak? Fine and dandy. We can briefly observe that the administration is hypocritically breathless about the secret spying leak while it brushed off the Plame leak. But the real focus has to stay on the secret spying program itself. Take a page from the administration's playbook and repeat, over and over, why this matters. There is a federal law requiring the president to obtain a warrant when he orders surveillance of Americans. The president did not follow this law. He ordered spying without warrants. His actions violate the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as well as the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

When the leak investigation story makes it to the Sunday talk shows, Hardball, etc. let's hope our side keeps its eye on the ball. The secret spying story is about the President breaking the law. It's not about who informed the New York Times of that fact.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

What Else Don't We Know About? (Part II)

John Dean has described the Bush administration as more secretive than Richard Nixon’s infamously obsessive presidency. Dean knows something about the topic—he served as Nixon’s White House Counsel. As stories about some of the Bush administration’s secrets come out, we’re all getting an idea of just how close to the vest the Bush men and women hold their cards.

Secrecy is not inherently a bad thing and may, of course, be necessary at times. However, for President Bush, secrecy seems to be a way to keep very unpleasant, possibly illegal, activities hidden. Nearly three years ago, Bush and his then-National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice authorized wiretapping of the home and office telephones, and e-mail, of members of the United Nations Security Council. The administration apparently wanted to find out how Security Council members would vote on a resolution for war in Iraq. Last month, we learned that the administration set up secret CIA prisons in Soviet-era facilities in eastern Europe. This may have been an attempt to avoid legal restrictions on torture and other coercive interrogation methods. We still don’t know who Vice President Cheney met with to develop energy policy early in the administration’s first term; nor do we know why it has been necessary to keep this information secret.

Most recently it has been reported, and President Bush himself acknowledged, that the administration ordered secret wiretapping of Americans without seeking warrants or court orders, as required by federal statute. As the administration has been mum about the details of this program, we can only speculate as to why this spying was conducted in secret.

These are some of the secret activities that have been uncovered. A question that naturally arises is: what else is the President up to? What else is there that we don’t know about? Will we find out next year that the administration has a political enemies list made up of journalists and others considered hostile to the administration’s views? Has the FBI been rifling through the bank records of thousands of Americans, without a warrant? Have federal agents been entering Americans’ homes without warrants? Exactly how many Americans have been placed under government surveillance, and why?

The only way to begin to get answers to these questions is for Congress to truly fulfill its oversight duties. It needs to ask tough questions of the president, and it is no longer sufficient for the president or his advisors to say “trust us”. If the administration is concerned about confidentiality, it can ask for appropriate measures to be taken. Congress has dealt with classified information before and there are procedures set up to keep national security information secret (and if those procedures aren’t good enough, better ones can be implemented). But there must be oversight, and it is not enough to tell a few Congressional leaders about secret spying on the condition that they can tell no one else or even consult with anyone else about possible illegality.

This president has demonstrated he cannot be permitted to operate behind closed doors. In fact, no president should be left entirely to his own devices. We have a constitutional system of checks and balances provided by the separation of powers among the three branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial. That brilliantly designed system cannot operate, however, when the president keeps the other branches in the dark. It is not enough for the president to say “we are at war and I need to be able to address national security issues”. That cannot be an excuse for untrammeled executive power or unquestioned presidential secrecy. For one thing, the vaguely defined (and undeclared) “war on terror” threatens to go on indefinitely. Does this president expect Congress, the judiciary, and the American people to cede power indefinitely to this and future administrations?

Republicans currently control both branches of Congress. However, some Republican Senators, including Spector, Snowe, Hagel and others, have voiced serious concerns about the secret surveillance program and have indicated they will hold investigations. It is to be hoped that these investigations take place and that members of Congress make clear that neither this administration, nor any administration, has carte blanche to decide when to operate in secrecy.

What about Bin Laden?

Remember Osama Bin Laden? You know, the terrorist mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, the leader of Al Qaeda, the one President Bush promised to deliver to justice “dead or alive”? Four years ago, Bin Laden was public enemy number one. Now, we rarely hear about him, and the President hardly ever mentions him.

To some extent, Bin Laden is a symbol. He may not personally be in a position to orchestrate new attacks; he may be sick, or even dead, for all we know. What Bin Laden reminds us of, however, is that the Bush administration took its eye off the ball when it made Iraq the focal point of its vaguely defined “war on terror.” The administration exploits the vagueness of this undeclared war by repeating, over and over, that we are fighting “terrorists” in Iraq (none of whom, by the way, operated there before the war began). Americans most likely understand this to mean that the insurgency is largely, if not completely, made up of Al Qaeda members doing Bin Laden's bidding.

Earlier this month, Congressman John Murtha, who gets his information from top Pentagon officials, said that only about 7% of the insurgents are foreign fighters. Whether or not Congressman Murtha is correct, Iraq is hardly the only place in the world where Al Qaeda operates. In fact, it is probably misleading to refer to Al Qaeda as if it were one cohesive entity. Many commentators compare it to a franchise operation that spawns copycat groups who are only loosely connected with Bin Laden, if at all.

Whatever Al Qaeda’s precise contours, it is clear that it does not limit itself to political boundaries. The administration’s rallying cry of “let’s fight them in Iraq so we don’t have to fight them here” makes no sense given that there have been attacks in Britain, Spain, Jordan, and elsewhere since the war in Iraq began. The nebulously defined “terrorists” will not obligingly agree to stay within the confines of any one country while we engage them in conventional warfare.

The fact is, Americans have no way to know if the Bush administration is actually addressing the most imminent threats to our nation. Over the past three years, the administration has clearly acted as if the greatest threat is in Iraq, whether in the person of Saddam Hussein or in the form of the insurgency. We just don’t know if this is correct. We don’t have access to intelligence. We must take it on faith that the administration has done the right thing by concentrating the bulk of our military manpower, along with hundreds of billions of dollars, in Iraq.

I do not mean to suggest that the administration is unconcerned with the safety of the American people. I am sure it is concerned. Whether it has done everything it can to protect Americans is a different matter. The bipartisan 9/11 Commission recently gave the administration a “report card” on preparation against attacks that included 5 F’s, 12 D’s and two incompletes. The administration likes to rest on the most happy fact that there have been no attacks on American soil since 9/11. Like all Americans, I am very glad of this and hope for much more of the same. However, reasoned scrutiny reveals the logical flaw in the administration’s claim that we are safe because there have been no additional attacks. Based on the administration’s logic, we were all very safe on September 10, 2001, as there had been no previous attacks on American soil. Obviously, the relevant issue, looking ahead, is not what has happened, but what threats are out there. Again, ordinary Americans do not know.

What we do know is that this administration went to war with a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 or Bin Laden, our sworn enemy. We have committed the bulk of our military to the war in Iraq for an undefined period of time. By definition, this means that we did not focus our full efforts on pursuing Bin Laden and Al Qaeda operatives outside of Iraq. Is it too much to ask the President to convince us that he understands there are threats beyond Iraq? Is it too much to ask that the President remembers his pledge to bring the people who attacked us on 9/11 to justice, including Bin Laden himself?

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Legislating from the White House

For years, Republicans have urged a distinction between judges who are "strict constructionists" (their type of judges) and those they call "activists" (crazy liberals). Activist judges, they tell us, are judges who "legislate from the bench", in other words, judges who supposedly make up the law as they go along. President Bush frequently describes his own judicial nominees as judges who do not legislate from the bench and instead will simply apply the laws as written by Congress, or as stated in the Constitution. We rarely, if ever, hear specific examples of actual decisions deemed to be the result of judicial activism, although we can assume Roe v. Wade is a case conservatives see as an activist opinion.

Time for Civics 101. Only one branch of the federal government is assigned authority by the Constitution to make the laws. That is, of course, Congress, the legislative branch. Just as judges may not legislate from the bench, so too the president may not "legislate from the White House". Congress makes the law, the president executes the law (hence the term "executive branch"). The presidential oath of office acknowledges this constitutional reality.

George W. Bush is an activist president. The president has admitted as much. He has told us he decided to ignore the law Congress passed regarding wiretapping--the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. This law requires the administration to seek a warrant or court order when listening in on Americans' telephone calls or peeking at their emails. The president claims the law is too restrictive--it doesn't give him the speed or flexibility needed to fight this new (and vaguely defined, as well as undeclared) "war on terror".

Many observers have pointed out the law actually does allow the president to act quickly and seek a warrant up to 72 hours after surveillance has begun. Let's leave that (important) point aside for now. What I'm addressing here is the president's defiant assertion that he may rewrite federal statutes on the fly, without going through the constitutionally required legislative process.

If the president disagreed with FISA and thought he should have more power to engage in surveilance, he could have proposed new legislation, or changes to FISA. He chose not to and simply rewrote the law himself, unilaterally removing the requirement that a warrant or court order be obtained. Whether he is right or wrong about what is needed is not the issue. The question is whether the president may take over Congress's role as lawmaker. That is why we have a constitutional crisis on our hands, and that is why many conservatives are very concerned. That is why conservative pundit George Will has voiced concern about presidential overreaching, that is why the Washington Times ran an op-ed criticizing the warrantless surveillance, and that is why Republican Senators Spector, Snowe, Hagel, and others are calling for congressional investigations.

The administration's distinction between activist and strict constructionist judges is, in fact, not as neat and simple as it sounds. But that is not the issue here. Whether or not there actually are activist judges, there certainly is an activist president. It is to be hoped that conservatives who condemn activist judges will have the intellectual consistency to reject an activist president. Permitting or condoning this activist president means setting aside our constitutional framework and accepting a president who is, quite simply, above the law.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Liberal Is Not a Dirty Word

Let's try some free association. What do you think of when you hear the word "liberal"? If you listen to Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, or Rush Limbaugh, you will probably free associate from "liberal" this way: "hates America", "liar", "commie", "coward", "godless", even "traitor" or "the enemy".

This type of "thinking" is on the level of playground namecalling. It's roughly the equivalent of a 6 year old calling someone he doesn't like a "doodyhead". It is highly generalized, nonspecific, and unsupported by evidence (the same may or may not be true of the 6 year old's insult). But it has been effective. Democrats are afraid to identify themselves as liberals, and liberal haters (I won't call them "conservatives" because I think the title doesn't fit, as I'll explain in another post) use it only as an insult and/or tend to blur the word's meaning with "Democrat" i.e. all Democrats they disagree with are hated "liberals".

The liberal haters rarely talk in specifics and rarely discuss real liberals. What do they even mean when they use the word? I will discuss some real liberals here and explain what the word really means.

Here are some real liberals who, most Americans would agree, don't deserve to be slandered as traitors or cowards. Thomas Jefferson, Tom Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Abraham Lincoln (of a very different Republican party), Lucretia Mott, Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, Robert Kennedy, Most current Democrats don't qualify as liberals because the political spectrum has moved so much to the right in recent years. However, a few modern liberals include Russ Feingold and the late Paul Wellstone.

What is a "liberal"? The dictionary defines "liberal" as broadminded, not bound by authoritarianism, free from bigotry, open to new ideas for progress, tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others.

Abolitionists who fought to eliminate slavery before the Civil War were liberals. Those who fought for women to gain the right to vote (including Stanton, Anthony, and Mott), were liberals. Opponents of racial segregation who rejected "separate but equal" and risked their lives (and sometimes lost their lives) in the Jim Crow South standing up to bigots were liberals. Progressives who instituted the five day, 40 hour work week and ended child labor in factories were liberals. Men and women who declared, and declare, that women have the same right to be doctors, lawyers, and CEOs that men do are liberals.

Few Americans would see ending slavery, giving women the right to vote or eliminating segregated schools, lunchcounters, and drinking fountains as radical ideas today. At the time, of course, they were quite radical ideas. Today they are firmly American ideas, but no less liberal.

Our Constitution, including its Bill of Rights, is a liberal document. Again, at the time, it was a radical idea to declare that political power was derived from the people, as opposed to god or king. It was radical to enshrine as law the principles of free speech, the religious Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses, due process, or freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures and cruel and unusual punishment. Today, of course, these are thoroughly "American" principles we all embrace (well, at least for now--reports of warrantless surveillance and openended detentions present a direct threat to some of these basic principles). Democracy itself is a liberal idea--the proposition that everexpanding members of the population (first property holding white men, then all white men, then all men, finally and men and women) choose their representatives and leaders was a radical rejection of authoritarian rule, now an accepted American value.

Here's what being liberal means to me. It means making the values enshrined in the Constitution real. It means speaking up when you disagree with the government (no matter which party is in power). It means wanting the best for all Americans. It means demanding that our government tells us the truth. It means fighting for equality and fighting against bigotry. It means being open minded-- not just accepting different viewpoints, but listening to and learning from different viewpoints and being able to change. It means denouncing torture, no matter who is doing the torturing. It means believing in the universal human capacity for reason, the force that led our country's founders in an Age of Reason to question the divine right of kings. It means rejecting leaders who ask us to surrender our liberty to their agendas. It means making sure the needs of ordinary Americans are not subordinated to the desires of the wealthy and powerful. It means, in short, striving to fulfill the ideals central to this nation's founding. To be liberal is to be American.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Interesting Experience

I spent some time over the past 2 days on a board at Initially, I went there because I wanted to vote in a poll that asked a slanted question--choices were (a) should we pull out of Iraq immediately or (b) should we "stay the course"? The poll choices ignored the fact that no Democrat on the national stage supports position (a)--the closest is the Murtha position calling for withdrawal over the next 6 months (and keeping forces nearby so we could go back in if necessary). After I voted, I started reading posts and felt compelled to respond. It snowballed from there--I ended up posting about 20 times over 2 days (and some LONG posts, complete with links to facts backing my positions).

I read post after post that simply repeated slogans or threw insults at liberals. Liberals were derided as "the enemy" and accused of treason. Empty statements like "love it or leave it", "stay the course", "finish the job", "keep them on the run", "we can either fight them over there or in the US" were plentiful. One post said liberals were monkeys because they believe in evolution. Other posts described liberals as "godless","communists" and/or "cowards". Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein morphed into what was described as "the same enemy".

There were also more thoughtful posts though. I exchanged comments with one poster who made the reasonable point that whatever you think of the reasons given for going to war in Iraq (almost none of which turned out to be true), the insurgents are a problem to be dealt with. He is right and I'm not sure anyone really knows how to solve this problem. But I don't see "stay the course" as an answer. It's a slogan. However, what he had to say made me think.

What frustrated me the most was the persistent refusal to use facts. People would make sweeping comments, like "liberals hate the troops" or "liberals think Americans are dumb" or "Dems want to bring the country down", "libs want us to lose", "Dems in Congress are stopping the generals from winning". None of the many people who made accusations like this ever backed up these sweeping generalizations with facts. That is frustrating, to say the least. I tried my best to point this out (over and over!).

There were also plenty of specifically incorrect points. One poster said "thank God we didn't have a liberal Dem in office during WWII! I'd never have been born." I reminded her FDR, the ORIGINAL liberal Dem was president during the war and advocated going to war early on while many conservatives like Charles Lindbergh and Arthur Vandenberg (didn't mention the latter by name) urged the US to stay out of the war. No one responded to that post! another poster claimed Bush had never flip-flopped (to her credit, when I gave some examples--some of which are posted on this blog, she was quite gracious) Another poster, again quite polite and friendly to me when I responded to him (thanked me for my "nice post"), attacked "selfish Dems" and wondered how many in Congress had served in the military (the poster himself was a veteran). I pointed out to him that many Dems in Congress had served (and gave examples). It was interesting to notice he didn't mind that few in the Bush admin have served. As I say though, he was quite polite and thanked me for my response.

One of the most frustrating exchanges involved a poster who was defending Halliburton. He started off by claiming Michael Moore made more money off the war than Halliburton. I pointed out to him that Halliburton has been accused of widespread fraud. His initial response was--it's just allegations, I thought "you people" believe in innocent until proven guilty, if you're right I'll apologize, but you won't be right. I pointed out presumed innocence is not something "you people" believe, it's constitutional due process. And I pointed him to links explaining several Halliburton employees have already pled guilty to criminal acts--it's moved beyond mere allegations. He was unmoved---said it was just a few bad apples. I pointed to stories of widespread fraud involving millions of dollars and witnesses who said Halliburton gave expired food to troops in Iraq. I reminded him Halliburton has been accused of cheating our military and our troops. I quoted a Republican Congressman who agreed there were serious concerns. Nothing mattered--he simply was unwilling to see anything wrong with Halliburton.

I don't mean to be 100% negative. I enjoyed the posting, even enjoyed reading the posts I disagreed with. I got some very gracious responses and some friendly responses. No one was dismissive of me, no one called me any terrible names. No one wrote anything personally attacking me (though there were plenty of generalized attacks against liberals and Democrats). And some of the liberals who posted (liberals were a decided minority on the Hannity site of course, but not nonexistent) were guilty of the problems I describe above---using insult, invective, name calling, failing to point to facts.

I knew I wouldn't change any minds, and really that was not my goal. I think different views are good. I do get upset about misinformation, slogans, namecalling. My main goal was to show Hannity's viewers/listeners that liberals are real people, not monsters drooling over the opportunity to undermine America. I reminded that we are all Americans, we all support the troops, supporting the troops doesn't mean we have to support everything the president does, and it should mean more than putting a yellow decal on your car. It should mean speaking up when companies defraud the military and asking Congress and the President to make sure our troops have the body armor and vehicle armor they need. I pointed out some of the troops are actually liberal Democrats themselves, and plenty have served in the past (I gave examples).

It was clear to me, as it has been clear before when I have spoken to other people I know, that many people who enjoy Hannity/Fox have reduced political debate to slogan and insults. I don't think this is wholly their fault--Hannity, Limbaugh, O'Reilly and others do them a disservice and preach hatred, reduced to convenient soundbites. They spend lots of time telling people how liberals are the devil and encouraging viewers to turn off their minds. It's not surprising that people absorb and repeat what they hear from those they trust. I'm sure liberals are guilty of this at times too, and I know there are certainly times when I have been closeminded, overly general, or overly emotional. No one is perfect. I am hoping my mind remains open.

I try to be open-minded. I certainly do not agree with everything Democratic politicians say or do. I urged posters at the Hannity site to apply the same standard to those they support. It was an interesting couple of days...

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Constitutional Crisis

When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, he liked to dramatically raise his right hand during public appearances. The Bush campaign was drawing a contrast between President Clinton, who did not tell the truth about an affair with Monica Lewinsky, and Bush, who would “restore honor and integrity to the White House” from the moment he raised his hand and swore on the Bible in taking the oath of office.

When Bush won the election and swore that oath, he swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. There were no exceptions. He did not promise to defend the Constitution “except during time of war or national emergency.” The Constitution itself similarly provides no such exceptions. Nowhere in the Constitution will you find a provision permitting the president to suspend or otherwise deviate from the Constitution in certain circumstances.

Last Saturday, President Bush admitted that he has set aside federal statute and the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution by ordering secret surveillance of Americans. Although applicable law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Fourth Amendment, very clearly forbid such activity, absent a warrant or court order, President Bush says he has decided such actions are necessary to defend Americans.

This is an administration that solemnly invokes the principle of strict construction of federal law and the Constitution. It accuses liberal judges of making up the law as they go along, while conservative judges like Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito simply apply the law as it is written. But the administration’s position on the secret spying seems to be that the president has special unwritten powers associated with his role as Commander in Chief that permit him to take this action. Again, nothing in the Constitution actually says this.

Apparently the president is not himself a strict constructionist. If he were, he would recognize that the Constitution does not give him authority to set aside federal law or the Constitution, even if he deems it necessary.

What we have here is not judicial activism but presidential activism. We have a president who has decided, by fiat, that the law does not apply to him when he decides otherwise. The president has defiantly admitted he broke the law and is daring Congress to do something about it. He has said he will continue to order secret surveillance without bothering to comply with the law. Never mind that FISA provides the president with very broad powers to conduct surveillance by obtaining warrants pursuant to a lenient standard and even by conducting emergency surveillance for up to 72 hours before obtaining a warrant. This is not really about security. It is about power. The president is speaking a language of raw, untrammelled power, and he is daring the other branches of government to get in his way.

This is, quite simply, a constitutional crisis. Either the Constitution means what it says, or it does not. Either the president must obey the law, or he is above the law. Either Congress or the judiciary will stop the president, or he will have the power to suspend federal law and the Constitution at his whim.

President Bush often tells us that the terrorists hate us for our freedoms. The terrorists have no power to abridge our liberties. They cannot search our bank records. They cannot wiretap our telephone conversations. They cannot search our e-mails. They cannot arrest and incarcerate us without probable cause or a trial. Only our government can do that. Our government, which says it is fighting for democracy and defending freedom, has announced that our most basic freedoms may be sacrificed in the name of security.

More than two centuries ago, Founding Father Patrick Henry famously declared “give me liberty, or give me death”. President Bush now tells us he will take our liberty from us in order to protect us from death. That is not the United States of America. If, in fighting an open-ended, vaguely defined war on terror, we set aside the basis for our constitutional democracy, then we might as well suspend the Constitution and make clear that the president may act as he chooses. It is to be fervently hoped that the system will work and the president will not be permitted to operate above the law.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

What Else Don't We Know About?

Thanks to the belated New York Times story (they held up publication for a year or so at the administration's request), we now know the Bush administration has been violating federal statute and the Constitution since at least 2002 by illegally spying on Americans.

It seems unlikely this is the only such activity the administration has engaged in. At the next opportunity, someone in the media needs to find out from the president or his press secretary what else we don't know about. Has the administration assigned operatives to tail Americans, regardless of whether there was probable cause to believe a crime was being or had been committed? Has it rummaged through bank records or other personal information without benefit of a warrant? Have federal officials entered peoples' homes without warrants?

If the administration has engaged in other illegal activity in the name of the war on terror, we need to know about it, and it needs to stop. If the Bush administration is trying to recreate George Orwell's 1984, perhaps it will be so good as to let us know all of the details of its adventure into absolute power.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

President Flip-Flop

This is a minor foootnote in light of the news that the President believes he is above the law and is unrepentant about breaking the law. But in the interest of bearing witness to hypocrisy, it should be noted that President Bush has flip-flopped on major issues at least twice this week. Bush opposed the McCain anti-torture legislation -- until he decided to support it. Bush said he couldn't talk about illegal spying until he changed his mind the next day and proudly acknowledged his disdain for the constitution's separation of powers. Of course, this is not the first time Bush has switched positions -- see, for example, his opposing the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (until he decided to support it) and his 2000 campaign promise to reduce certain pollutant emissions (withdrawn once he was elected).

I guess Kerry wasn't the only one who could flip-flop.

Update: Is the President Above the Law?

Bush admitted today that he did order illegal spying on Americans. He said he is doing what is necessary to fight the war on terror. He did not apologize and said he would do this again.

We have heard from this President, ad nauseam, that the terrorists hate us for "our freedoms." Now he is telling us it is sometimes necessary to violate the Constitution in order to fight terror. Kind of sounds like the old Vietnam-era maxim--"we had to destroy the village in order to save it".

If we suspend the Constitution and cede all our rights to this administration, will the terrorists stop hating us?

This is upside down, black is white, Orwellian stuff.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Is the President above the law?

The New York Times has reported that President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to conduct surveillance of Americans inside the United States without seeking a warrant from a court. Here's a link to the story.

If it turns out the reports are true, then President Bush decided he was above the law and gave orders for the NSA to conduct illegal warrantless surveillance that violated the Constitution, the document on which our nation is founded.

This is extremely serious stuff. Yes, we face threats today. But if we agree that the president has carte blanche to take whatever action he deems appropriate to combat terrorism, then we might as well suspend the Constitution and name Bush dictator. That is not an exaggeration--again, if this happened as reported, then President Bush (who reportedly personally authorized wiretapping) set aside the law and decided he need not obey it.

In retrospect, this should not be a surprise. The administration has argued for an incredibly expansive vision of presidential power that basically means during time of war the president can do anything he deems necessary to protect the American people. This is the language of dictatorship. Here's a link to another Times article explaining the administration's theory of sweeping executive power.

I do not mean to suggest that we are living in a Stalinist state. But this is extremely scary stuff. Fortunately, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress seem to recognize that. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Meeting immediately said he would conduct hearings on this matter. Five Republicans joined Democrats in blocking reauthorization of the Patriot Act today, and it seems they were influenced by the secret spying story.

If this story turns out to be true, we are facing a constitutional crisis. Is the executive branch above the law? Can Congress stop the executive from acting in violation of the Constitution? Early signs are encouraging, as Republicans seem stunned and outraged by this revelation. I hope they will maintain their resolve if it becomes clear that the Bush administration has indeed placed itself above the law.

Look on the Bright Side

When the Titanic hit an iceberg and sank in April 1912, over fifteen hundred people died. If Donald Rumsfeld had been around back then, he might have wondered why newspapers overlooked the positive aspects of the story. Things weren’t all bad on that tragic night. For one thing, over 700 people were rescued and lived. A whopping 74% of women on board the ship survived, as well as 52% of children. And the Carpathia, the first ship that came by to pick up Titanic’s survivors, had a successful Atlantic crossing; not one passenger was lost.

That’s the kind of Pollyanna-ish spin Americans can expect from their not-so-beloved Defense Secretary. Before the war in Iraq began, Rumsfeld brushed off the idea that it might last more than a few months. Nearly three years later, he asserts that news coverage of the war is too negative, claiming there is a contrast between the stories of suicide attacks and dead soldiers that Americans read and the views of the Iraqi people and U.S. troops themselves. Rumsfeld threatened to make a complete break with reality when he recently compared Iraq with America’s World War Two victory at Iwo Jima: “You couldn’t tell the full story of Iwo Jima simply by listing the 26,000 [American casualties],” Rumsfeld insisted, “So too, in Iraq, it’s appropriate to note not only how many Americans have been killed…but what they died for, or more accurately what they lived for.” The Secretary said that context is missing from reports of suicide attacks.

I am fortunate to be one of the few observers whose head did not explode when reading the transcript of Rumsfeld’s speech, given at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Therefore, the task falls to me to point out some of the major flaws in the Secretary’s umm, what do we call it? Logic?

Iwo Jima was a major American victory coming after many other American victories had pushed the Japanese back from their strongholds in the Pacific. It followed major American triumphs in the Phillippines and at the battle of Leyte Gulf. We suffered grievous casualties at Iwo Jima, but nearly every Japanese soldier on the island was wiped out. Of nearly 22,000 Japanese defenders, only 200 survived to be taken prisoner. This was a huge victory. Iwo Jima was secured and became an important air base used for the ongoing Pacific campaign. To put it in a larger context (as Rumsfeld demands for Iraq), things were also going well on the European front. American troops were marching across Europe to meet Russian troops coming from the east, where they met in Berlin just a couple of months later. Total victory was in sight and came less than six months later with V-J Day.

All this contrasts with the quagmire in Iraq. We do not control Iraq. Not even Baghdad is secure. American soldiers are dying at an alarming rate—11 Marines were killed just the other day and more than 2,000 have died in all. There is no evidence that we are close to defeating the insurgency. There is every reason to expect it will continue as long as we keep troops in Iraq. In short, there is no end in sight. When Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice recently appeared before a Senate Committee she refused to say whether American troops might still be needed in Iraq in 10 years.

None of this takes anything away from the bravery or idealism of our troops in Iraq. They have done everything that has been asked of them and are continuing to perform their duties under conditions that would drive most of us stark raving mad.

It does nothing to help our troops, however, to brush aside reality. Reality is that we have been in Iraq for nearly three years. No WMD were found. The country has been torn apart by sectarian violence. U.S. credibility is gone. A majority of Americans no longer support the president and no longer think it was a good idea to invade Iraq.

The fact is that creative (though warped) thinking can make even the worst disaster sound like it has an upside. On the tragic day when the Challenger space shuttle exploded, seven crew members were killed, but 99.9% of NASA employees survived the day. When the plague swept through 14th Century Europe, it killed an estimated 34 million people. But more than two thirds of Europeans lived on. When a flu pandemic hit just after World War One, millions died worldwide. But most people survived that too.

Maybe we should try to take Secretary Rumsfeld’s advice. We have a Secretary of Defense who helped author a costly, tragic war in Iraq that, after nearly three years, has achieved none of its promised objectives. On the positive side, there are rumors that Rumsfeld may be on his way out of office as many are clamoring for his exit. Maybe there’s something to positive thinking after all.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Conservative Culture of Victimhood

Not so long ago, it was in vogue for conservatives to accuse liberals of fostering a “culture of victimhood”. What this meant is that conservatives had heard enough of women, African-Americans, and other minorities complaining about inequality.

After years of telling women, African-Americans, Hispanics, gays, lesbians, the disabled and others to “get over it”, conservatives finally decided they would develop their own narrative of victimization. In recent years, we have heard that white men are an endangered species, that Christians are an embattled and widely persecuted group in the United States, and that conservatives face discrimination of their own, for instance, in academia. The latest episode in this unreality series is the assertion that there is a “War on Christmas”. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News claims this is part of the “secular progressive agenda…to get Christianity and spirituality and Judaism out of the public square”.

O’Reilly’s silly attempt to force a non-issue onto centerstage of public debate does not merit attention for its own sake. However, the underlying theme of white male/Christian/religious/ conservative persecution should catch our attention as it (a) runs counter to reality and (b) is an example of rank hypocrisy on the part of those who used to delight in ridiculing supposed liberal whiners.

Take a look at American institutions of power—Congress, the White House, the federal courts, corporate boardrooms. You will find the overwhelming majority of elites are white men. How many members of Congress are agnostic, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, atheist? Similarly, few are gay, lesbian or female —the overwhelming majority is Christian, white, male, and straight. Congress opens legislative sessions with prayers. President Bush does the same at cabinet meetings. The White House has an Office of Faith Based Initiatives. Conservatives control both branches of Congress and the White House. The Supreme Court is as conservative as it has been for decades—the most “liberal” member is probably Justice Souter, a Republican appointee who would have sat squarely at the political center of past Courts. “Liberal” is a dirty word in American politics—when’s the last time a presidential (or any) candidate proudly declared him or herself to be a liberal? By contrast, President Bush proudly describes himself as a “compassionate conservative”. There is no infamy associated with identifying oneself as a conservative. “Liberal” brings to mind tax and spend, socialist, even communist. Years of overheated conservative rhetoric have made the word radioactive.

According to the CIA’s world factbook, three quarters of Americans are either Protestant or Catholic. (The CIA factbook also says 81% are white, but there is no separate listing for Hispanics so it is not clear exactly how to parse this statistic). Our president is an evangelical Christian who makes his faith clear in his rhetoric and his policy choices. Who exactly are these atheistic Grinches who supposedly wield the power to ruin Christmas and banish religion from American life? No one seems to have identified any hard proof of their existence. If they did exist, they wouldn’t get very far with their sinister agenda.

Why have conservatives seized on a rhetoric of victimhood? I don’t know—my guess is they realized (consciously or otherwise) it was an effective talking point, a good way to play on and redirect feelings of humiliation and anger that reside in white men and the religiously faithful who nostalgically yearn for a mythic past when everyone went to church, women knew their place, and (here I am sympathetic) high school graduates could find good jobs with benefits that allowed them to raise families and send kids to college.

If Bill O’Reilly has his way, we will waste our time arguing about figments of his imagination. The reality is that, though this is a multicultural country with no state religion, it is predominantly Christian, and (some) men have held on to their positions of power in elite sectors of society. 21st century Archie Bunkers have plenty to be mad about—stagnant wages, vanishing fringe benefits, a disastrous war in Iraq, failure to improve national security. Conservatives would rather have them get angry at those who have the least power to affect their lives—atheists, gays, lesbians, ethnic and racial minorities, feminists. Scapegoating is a an old and tired political tactic used to deflect responsibility from failed governments to powerless straw men. So is developing a rhetoric of victimization. Turnabout is fairplay. Hey, Bill O’Reilly: get over it!