10.25.2006 -- I'm out on the political trail, rambling back and forth across America in support of good grassroots groups, good issues, and a surprising number of good populist candidates. I spent practically all of September on the hustings, beginning with a two-day, five-city barnstorming tour across the Hawkeye State to support a savvy and scrappy coalition called Sensible Iowans (a redundancy if ever I heard one), and I ended the month at a spirited rally with a large crowd of feisty Democrats in (of all places) Kennebunkport, Maine -- yes, right in the home nest of the plutocratic Bush clan! No doubt Homeland Security upped the local color code to "Bright Red" for that one!
I'll be crisscrossing the country again this month through Election day, from New Hampshire to California and all sorts of places in between. Since I'm literally a rambling man these days, I offer some random political thoughts, observations, and tidbits from my travels.
The political climate
Among the political cognoscenti, it's fashionable these days to dis the body politic -- aka, you and me. We are disparaged as being a bunch of clueless and malleable rubes who care more about who wins the latest "Survivor" matchup than who wins Congress. Of course, these pundits, consultants, lobbyists, and politicos spend way too much of their time in cocktail chit-chat rooms inhaling each others' hot breath.
From my viewpoint out here in the hinterland, it's the cognoscenti who are the clueless ones. The people of America are soooooo much bigger than the politics that are being served up to us by the elites. I find that people everywhere are fed up with the red-state/blue-state hokum that passes for political discourse in our country, and they're in something of a purple rage about the system's abject failure to address the BIG matters that are on people's minds, particularly such populist issues as:
Falling wages and falling middle-class opportunities.
Lousy health care, or none at all.
A collapsing national infrastructure, from water systems and roads to school buildings and parks.
Corporate greed unleashed.
Money-corrupted politics and government.
The death of the Common Good.
Mainstream polls confirm that these are big worries for the majority of folks, and that the public is growing more and more alienated from the economic and political elites in charge. Sixty-three percent of Americans now say that our country is "off on the wrong track" (APIpsos poll), 67 percent are "dissatisfied with the way things are going in the U.S." (Gallup Poll), and 51 percent expect that the next generation will be worse off economically.
People are aching for a politics that matters to them and offers a path to an America in which they matter again. That would be Big Politics. But this year we're mostly getting another campaign of small-ball and low-ball politics, featuring such manipulative mindlessness as the Bushites trying to label all of their war critics "appeasers."
Tony Snow, Bush's PR flak, tried to do a mini-McCarthy on the war issue by declaring in September that there are "some" in the Democratic party "who say that we shouldn't fight the [terrorists]; we shouldn't apprehend al Qaeda; we shouldn't detain al Qaeda, we shouldn't question al Qaeda; and we shouldn't listen to al Qaeda." Goodness gracious, Tony, give us the names of these traitorous Democrats so we can hunt them down like the filthy varmints they are!
Alas, poor Tony could not produce a single name.
And then Dick Cheney was unleashed. Snarling and snapping at Democrats who're calling for a withdrawal of troops from Iraq, the Veep flashed his crooked sneer and barked that these dastardly Democrats are out to "validate the al Qaeda strategy and invite more terrorist attacks" on America. Thank you, Dick. Now go back to your dungeon.
Next up was Donnie Rumsfeld. What a sputtering old goose he's become! The Pentagon chief is all honked off that we plebes have dared to criticize his handling of the war on terrorism, especially his disastrous diversion into Iraq. So, he has resorted to questioning our patriotism. Last month, he petulantly referred to us dissenters as people who always "blame America."
No, Rummy, we blame you! Indeed, we dissenters areAmerica-- 61% of the people now oppose your Iraq war, 58% say it has not been worth the lives we've lost, and 75% say Iraq has deteriorated into civil war. We the People blame you, George, "Buckshot" Cheney, and the entire Bushite menagerie of warmongers, ideological nutballs, war profiteers, and chickenhawks for squandering American lives, treasury and reputation. It's time to say the obvious -- our so-called "leaders" are losers.
Think about it: First they lost Osama. They almost won Afghanistan, but they got distracted and lost it, too. Then they lost Iraq to civil war and theocracy. Here at home, they lost New Orleans. Hell, they even lost Pluto -- one-ninth of our solar system is gone!
The poor GOP
I'm actually feeling a twinge of compassion for the Repubs. Poor babies, they're trying to run this year with a Gibraltar of weighty political negatives piled on their backs, including Iraq, Halliburton, Iran, congressional corruption, oil profits, CEO pay, corporate scandals, minimum wage, off-shored jobs, trade scams, rising poverty, Katrina, health care, prescription drugs, Social Security privatization, tax boondoggles, national debt, torture, NSA spying, secret prisons, and "signing statements."
Most GOP congressional candidates who are in competitive races are scampering as fast as they can to get away from the Bush-Cheney-Rummy troika, which is about as popular this fall as E. coli spinach. Bush's approval rating is still stuck down at 37 percent (even after his September "Blitz of Fear" designed to spook voters into going Republican).
A new Associated Press-Ipsos survey of Southern women, a group that has backed George since 2000 because of his "religious values," finds that Bush's war is trumping his purported religiosity. Only 32 percent of women in the region still support his handling of both Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result, three out of five Southern women say they'll vote for Democrats next month. An indication of how Bush has fallen from favor with these ladies comes from a Georgia mother of three, Barbara Knight, who has been a Republican since birth. "I think history will show him to be the worst president since Ulysses S. Grant," she said. Oh, that stings! In the deep South, you can't fall any lower than Grant.
The Republicans, however, do have one secret weapon they're counting on to maintain their control of the House and Senate: Democrats.
Where's the spark
This should be an easy year for Dems, a landslide year, but -- with important exceptions -- they continue to practice the politics of equivocation. Take health care. A Zogby poll taken in May in the swing state of Pennsylvania asked if the government should assure that every working American has health coverage. Sixty-nine percent shouted "Yes!" Yet when Sen. Hillary Clinton announced in June that she was going to tackle the health-care issue, she limited her bill to a minimalist, incremental, convoluted approach that would reach only low-income children, leaving more than 40 million Americans uncovered. She meekly mumbled that she can only "do what the political reality permits me to do… what the body politic will bear."
Yoo-hoo, Hillary, the body politic is so far ahead of you that it's pathetic -- as is your gutless bill.
Most appalling is the overall failure of today's Democrats to claim their historic roots as the Party of the People. The issue of class makes these delicate Dems queasy, so they give up the huge political advantage that could be theirs simply by being Democrats -- by taking on Bush Incorporated.
The Democratic wussiness, of course, is the direct result of their leaders' thirst for corporate campaign funds. Indeed, the party has shown little willingness to take a swing at public financing of elections -- the one reform that would take the big, corrupting money out of politics, putting regular folks on a more level playing field with the special interests. Several states already have public financing of their elections, and Zogby's Pennsylvania poll found that applying this approach to congressional elections is favored by 52 percent of Americans. The unavoidable truth is that too many of the party's lawmakers have become upscale "New Democrats," more comfortable with CEOS than working stiffs and perfectly content to go along with the contrived corporate wisdom on everything from globalization to privatization. Few have the stomach to go after the "economic royalists," as FDR branded the money powers of his day. They roundly castigated Roosevelt, a man who was born to wealth, as a traitor to his class. Asked if the enmity of his peers perturbed him, he fired right back, "I welcome their hatred." We could use some of that rousing populist spark.
Consider, too, the example of another unabashed Democrat, Harry Truman. At the start of his 1948 presidential race against Republican Robert Taft, he was given no chance to win. Undaunted, he went to the people with his cross-country whistle-stop tour, taking on Wall Street, calling for national health care, and becoming "Give ‘em Hell" Harry. As he began this historic trip, he told his sister, "It will be the greatest campaign any president ever made. Win, lose or draw, people will know where I stand and a record will be made for future action by the Democratic party."
Florida's infamous Katherine Harris, now running for the U.S. Senate, has claimed that "God is the one who chooses our rulers." Good Lord! God chose her? And Dick Cheney? And Tom DeLay? Surely there can't be a god as mean and vindictive as that.
One of the most frequent questions I'm asked on the road is whether Bush/Rove will push us into a war with Iran as an "October Surprise" to goose up GOP election chances. Doing so would seem insane, since our country's military, treasury, and patience are stretched to the breaking point… but insanity is no longer out of reach for this bunch. Indeed, Time reported late last month that the Pentagon's chief of naval operations has asked admirals to review plans for blockading two key Iranian ports, and a covey of minesweepers and other ships have received a "Prepare to Deploy" order for the west coast of Iran. Stay tuned.
The mayor speaks
The hottest, most honest speech I've heard from a Democrat in a long time came a month ago from a place deep in the red heart of Bush country: Utah.
The day before Bush was to speak to a carefully chosen group of military officers in Salt Lake City, some 4,000 Utahns poured into that city's Washington Square for an anti-war rally. Standing with them was Salt Lake City's two-term Democratic mayor, Rocky Anderson. He delivered a stemwinder, blistering the Bushites and inspiring "little d" democrats to stand tall:
Blind faith in bad leaders is not patriotism. A patriot does not tell people who are intensely concerned about their country to just sit down and be quiet; to refrain from speaking out in the name of politeness or for the sake of being a good host; to show slavish, blind obedience and deference to a dishonest, warmongering, human-rights-violating president. That is not a patriot. Rather, that person is a sycophant. That person is a member of a frightening culture of obedience -- a culture where falling in line with authority is more important than choosing what is right, even if it is not easy, safe, or popular. And, I suspect, that person is afraid -- afraid we are right, afraid of the truth (even to the point of denying it), afraid he or she has put in with an oppressive, inhumane regime that does not respect the laws and traditions of our country, and that history will rank as the worst presidency our nation has ever had to endure.
And that was just for openers! You can read the whole speech here.
Making votes count
In my rambling around, I've noticed a positive electoral phenomenon: In several states, including Minnesota, Ohio, Colorado, and Nevada, progressives are running for secretary of state, the office that runs the election process.
Nothing is more basic to democracy than the vote itself. Yet the unchecked spread of corporate owned machines has reduced the ballot in many places to a "faith-based" exercise! Also, there are organized campaigns to intimidate and harass voters and to create needless legal barriers to voter participation. All this in a country with a president piously preaching democracy to others around the world.
So the race is on! Reformers are vying to bring these offices back to their nonpartisan function of enhancing voter registration and participation while instilling confidence in the accuracy and fairness of the results. In each case, the reformers are promising a verifiable paper trail for all voting machines, public access to the computer programs that control the machines, and audits of the results posted by the machines. They also support aggressive efforts to assure maximum civic participation in our elections, including putting a stop to voter intimidation.
To learn more about the issues and candidates in these races, visit the independent Secretary of State Project at www.secstateproject.org.
On September 9, I took part in what I think is the Best Little Political Event in America -- though it's no longer little. It's the annual "Fighting Bob Fest," named for the old-time progressive leader Fighting Bob LaFollette, and held at the county fairgrounds in Baraboo, Wisconsin. It's a day-long, family-friendly mix of hell-raising speeches, foot-stomping music, hands-on political workshops, savory food, grassroots-organizing sessions, great local beer (it always help to lubricate the movement!), some 100 activist organizations…and just plain fun.
Organized by Ed Garvey -- a dynamic and jocular prairie populist from Madison -- Bob Fest drew some 6,000 people from a four-state area. Among the speakers were Granny D, Tom Harkin, Amy Goodman, John Nichols, Tammy Baldwin, John Stauber, and Greg Palast. Plus a few words from yours truly.
There have now been five Bob Fests, and I've been to four. I go because it's thoroughly enjoyable, engaging, and energizing. People love it because it "puts the party back in politics" and is a highly productive day of down-home democracy in action.
The beauty of Bob Fest is that it's a moveable feast -- you can team up with others to create your own version of it in your state or city. Go to www.fightingbobfest.org to learn about it. If you get serious about putting together such a "county fair" of activism and fun in your area, the good folks at Bob Fest are willing to give you some tips and to share their experiences. Let the good times roll… and let democracy flow!
The latest New York Times/CBS poll of registered voters finds that Americans have an overwhelmingly negative view of the Republican-led Congress, with only 25 percent approving of the way it is doing its job. Seventy-seven percent (including 65 percent of Republicans!) say that Congress members do not deserve re-election and that it's "time for new people" to be in charge.
http://www.hightowerlowdown.org/ - Jim Hightower, Hightower Lowdown