NOT A GOOD WEEK FOR JUSTICE

Robert Bork’s failed domination set a crucial precedent that a nominee whose jurisprudence endangers fundamental freedoms can and should be rejected by the Senate regardless of his personal competence. Unfortunately, Senate Democrats set a new one on Monday by stopping short of a filibuster on Sam Alito, a man who literally wrote the brief on how to kill Roe v. Wade, who has shown unwavering support for the power of the federal government to have its way with marginalized individuals, and who rejects that government’s responsibility and power to act in the service of the disenfranchised. Monday set a dangerous new precedent that when push comes to shove, the Senate will advise and consent only on whether the nominee is a sex offender or an incompetent. It’s a precedent Republicans can be depended on to take advantage of, to the real detriment of everyone who looks to an independent judiciary to safeguard their rights.

The Democrats’ ostensibly rebellious clapping after Bush said that Congress hadn’t enacted his plan to erode Social Security only emphasized the dark irony of the day: politicians who express their opposition through unauthorized clapping but not through the parliamentary avenues available to stop the confirmation of men who will leave us less free.

Want to put some real progressives into Congress? Here’s a good place to start.

NEAR-VICTORY HAS A THOUSAND FATHERS

Democrats got the closest thing to a surprise electoral victory we’ve had in a while on Tuesday when Paul Hackett pulled over 48% in the most Republican district in Ohio. Understandably, spin machines on all sides have been in overdrive in the week since to claim vindication in the results. Case in point: Ed Kilgore’s claim that Hackett made it to 48% because the unreconstructed liberals in the “netroots” were willing to face facts, eschew their litmus tests, and let Hackett run with the kind of centrism the DLC has been shopping around the country:

The best sign, IMO, is that all this excitement was generated on behalf of a candidate nicely tailored to a “red” district, whose policy views probably were at odds with those of a lot of the folks generating the excitement and the cash. And I gather the national groups and bloggers involved in Hackett’s campaign let the candidate and his staff call all the important shots.

Reading Kilgore’s take, you’d think Hackett was a regular Zell Miller – or at least a conservative Democrat, emphasis on the conservative, like Ken Salazar. It makes good copy if your organization is devoted to pulling the party away from the left: in a sudden fit of reasonableness, the liberal fringe recognizes reality and gets behind the centrist candidate who can win. Trouble is, Paul Hackett is no Ken Salazar. Don’t take it from me – check out his website. He bucks the party on guns, but otherwise, he’s in or to the left of the mainstream of the House Democrats. Not only is he resolutely opposed to Bush’s social security privatization scheme, he takes the step most Americans support but too many Democrats are afraid to talk about: calling for an increase in the cap on the payroll tax (hear that suggested by the DLC recently? Didn’t think so). He condemns outsourcing, and rather than echoing GOP rhetoric about “big government,” he exposes it for the sham argument that it is. And on perhaps the signal issue of the campaign – the war in Iraq – he stands well to the left not only of the DLC of a significant chunk of the Democratic party in the House. If not for his being a veteran, one would expect the DLC to respond to his rhetoric opposing the decision to go to war with the usual hand-wringing about the party’s flagging credibility on national security.

Of course, if Paul Hackett hadn’t been a veteran, it would have been a very different race. But if all Kilgore means is that liberals conceded to pragmatists by getting behind a veteran, then the obvious question is whhere he got the idea that liberals in their hearts of hearts would rather have men and women in Congress who’ve never served in war. Maybe by reading all those DLC memos about how the Democratic party has no credibility on national security.

Bottom line is, if Paul Hackett had tanked, we’d be hearing from the conservative wing of the party about how his unreconstructed liberalism failed to resonate with mainstream voters. Making Hackett out to be an extreme left-winger would certainly be less of a leap for them than it was to make one out of John Kerry or Al Gore.

No real surprises in tonight’s press conference. That Bush saw the need to have it at all demonstrates what must be a growing sense that public opinion is only further solidifying against this administration on each of its major domestic policy initiatives. Still not much of a social security plan. Un-conservative as means testing may sound, ultimately it’s an approach to fray the social contract by transforming social security in the public mind from a universal compact into a payoff to the poor. The next step, a generation from now, is capitalizing on that image to further assault the program. Meanwhile, makes sense that Bush set himself up as the good cop on the “filibuster against people of faith” line, although he can’t really distance himself from that nasty line without actually, well, distancing himself from it. Interesting to see him say that his energy bill won’t help for a decade.

A compelling argument against libertarianism…from Glenn Reynolds:

…if bankruptcy law is “anti-freedom.” then what’s pro-freedom? Debtor’s prison?

Glenn is responding to a reader questioning how a devout libertarian like him can be so opposed to the bankruptcy bill that would make it harder for those who fail in the free market to mitigate the effects of that failure. The reader’s right: if the free market is really a just and efficient tool that distributes goods according to virtue, any good libertarian should see the existence of bankruptcy law as a reward for bad behavior or even a “perverse incentive,” and staunchly support a bill like this one to further shred that protection net. Protections for debtors are a good idea, and this bill is a trainwreck, because – contra the libertarians – it’s too often the obstensibly free market which fails citizens, not the other way around. Contemporary libertarianism is, dare I say it, bankrupt precisely because it posits a vision of economic freedom which fosters greater economic slavery for the majority by accelerating the race to the bottom, encouraging exploitation, further marginalizing the already vulnerable, and denying the rights and freedoms which enable consumers and workers to leverage demands from employers. As Glenn himself recognizes, a system which leaves someone who goes bankrupt to rot leaves him less free. But so does a system which allows employers to lock their employees inside for the night with impunity, or forces parents to choose between medical treatment for themselves or their children. Debtor’s prison is certainly “anti-freedom,” but so is child labor, so is union-busting, so is social security privatization, so is cutting tax cuts for the rich, and so is the Senate’s refusal to reverse the near decade-long decline in the value of the minimum wage. It’s nice to see Glenn and other conservatives recognize that this bankruptcy bill is a threat to real freedom, but the threat isn’t just this bill: it’s the broader economic agenda this administration is inflicting on America.

Nathan’s had a series of good posts recently the kind of social security reform we should all be behind: taking on the regressive income cap on the payroll tax so that Bill Gates no longer can finish earning his payroll contribution for the year long before he wakes up on New Year’s Day.  Payroll taxes are a huge chunk of the tax contributions made by low income Americans in the post-Reagan era, and that a CEO making millions a year pays no more in absolute dollars than an employee making $90,000 is an outrage we should be hearing much more about from the Democratic side of the aisle.  It’s time they did, because it would be good for the country and as Nathan observes, it would be good politics as well:

The argument against talking about a deal is reasonable as short-term politics: when your opposition is stumbling, let them fall on their feet. But that does buy the idea that there’s nothing wrong with Social Security that needs fixing. No, there is no funding crisis, but the reality is that social security is fundamentally a regressive tax…This has been a problem for decades and progressives never took proactive action to improve the situation. Which opened the door for this rightwing attack in the first place…We know that House Republicans won’t agree to elminating the payroll tax cap, so there is no danger that proposing it as a reform will be met with any real negotiation on the issue. But we can slam the conservatives for supporting such a regressive policy.

And since progressives don’t believe there is a crisis, we don’t think there needs to be any new revenue raised TODAY, so any rise in revenue from eliminating the payroll tax cap should be matched with an overall cut in payroll tax rates paid by average workers– probably equivalent to saving them 2-3% of their income. Yes, Dems should be proposing a TAX CUT! You want wedge politics, you’ve got it. Many progressives have pushed for raising the cap to cut payroll taxes over the years (see here), and we should not abandon pushing the idea just as national attention is on social security. Progressives are not going to revive their national fortunes by only playing defense and defending the status quo. They need to play political jujitsu to take ideas put on the national agenda by Bush and use that debate as a vehicle for selling a vision of better, more progressive alternatives. Otherwise, we may win a few rearguard fights, but we won’t move forward in building broader support for the changes WE want.

And as Nathan further notes, eliminating the cap will keep social security solvent for most of a century, while gaining many more voters than it would lost. The polling bears it out as well…

A week and a half ago, President Bush called attention to African-Americans’ lower life expectancy – as a case for dismantling social security as we know it:

African American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people. And that needs to be fixed.

Yesterday on Meet the Press, Congressman Bill Thomas made clear cutting benefits for demographics which live longer – rather than improving conditions for those who don’t – is a new GOP talking point:

We also need to examine, frankly, Tim, the question of race in terms of how many years of retirement do you get based upon your race? And you ought not to just leave gender off the table because that would be a factor…If we discuss it and the will is not to do it, fine. At least we discussed it. To simply raise the age and find out that you’ve got gender, race and occupational problems later, I would not be doing the kind of service that I think I have to do.

I’d suspect that this message won’t test as well amongst Americans that weren’t hand-picked for “Conversations” by the White House.

Shorter Bush Press Conference:

Question: How can Russia become more democratic?

Bush: Putin should have supported the war in Iraq. Also, the WTO.

Question: What does Rumsfeld have to do to rebuild trust?

Bush: Nothing.

Question: What did you learn from Bernard Kerik’s failed nomination as Secretary of Homeland Security?

Bush: He would have been an awesome Secretary of Homeland Security.

Question: Why are Americans so anxious about your plans in Iraq:

Bush: It’s those Iraqi troops’ fault for running off the battlefield whenever things get tough. Also, the media for some reason seems to think that bombings are more newsworthy than small businesses.

Question: Some people are worried that your social security plan will force millions of Americans to retire into poverty. What’s the deal?

Bush: Keep in mind, I also wannt to strip your right to sue big business and shut down more schools for getting low test scores. As for social security, don’t bother trying to trick me into telling you what my plan is. For now, I’m just focusing on whipping the public into unsubstantiated panic. And keep in mind, FDR is dead.

Question: How many more Christmases are American troops going to have to spend in Iraq?

Bush: I’m too clever to set policy goals that’ll you’ll just turn around and criticize me for when I abjectly fail to meet them. Also, I know how to use the expression “in toto.”

Question: What are you going to do about Iran and North Korea?

Bush: Saddam Hussein, he was a bad guy. He violated a lot of UN resolutions.

Question: Why don’t you veto some of these spending bills?

Bush: Because I told Congress what to put in them.

Question: Whose benefits are secure?

Bush: Killing Social Security would be a lot easier if those old people didn’t keep getting so panicked. It’s not their checks I want to reneg on – just everybody else’s.

Question: How is it no one seems to agree with your immigration plan?

Bush: I know immigration. I was Governor of Texas.

Question: Where the hell is Osama bin Laden? And what’s with the violations of international law at Guantanamo Bay?

Bush: Well, we’ve killed a bunch of people other than Osama bin Laden. And clearly the world community isn’t paying enough attention to our Supreme Court decision.

Question: Why doesn’t Rumsfeld sign condolence letters to the families of troops he’s sending to get killed?

Bush: I know he seems gruff, but believe me he’s a real teddy bear inside.

Question: How did the war in Iraq affect prospects for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Bush: Everybody’s got a lot of responsibilities. Also, Yasser Arafat and Colin Powell are both out of the picture now. Now, on to high school football…

Bad idea:

The leadership of the Human Rights Campaign, at a meeting last weekend in Las Vegas, concluded that the group must bow to political reality and moderate its message and its goals. One official said the group would consider supporting President Bush’s efforts to privatize Social Security partly in exchange for the right of gay partners to receive benefits under the program.

Talk about forgoing the big tent. The Human Rights Campaign has always been too conservative for me. But this would be a new low. First, because contrary to the impression one might get from Queer Eye for the Staight Guy, scores of queer folks and their families also depend on social security to enable them to retire with dignity rather than into poverty, and they too deserve better than this privatization sham. Second, because now more than ever, as the economic justice movement struggles to better do justice to its queer constituents, standing on the wrong side of one of the major economic justice debates of the next four years can only narrow the movement. Third, because social security privatization is also incredibly unpopular with the American public, as it should be. So if, as the article suggests, the HRC’s new focus is on introducing gay America to everybody else, this seems like a particularly ill-chosen move to start with. (Spotted by Julie Saltman)

Speaking of Social Security, some one should ask David Brooks whether he’d be comefortable staking his national security on the stock market. Because if not, he’s in a strange position to be telling working class Americans to entrust their economic security to it. There’s a reason we call it “Social Security,” not “Social Program In Which If You Play Your Cards Right You Have A Decent Shot Ending Up Less Poor Than Without It.”

This is an election we should have won. This is an election we could have won if the candidate had been working as hard, and as smart, as everybody else that was trying to get him elected. We almost won it anyway. It could be that we did. But given Kerry’s unwillingness to wait as long as folks did in line to vote for him before saying, in the name of national unity, that their votes needn’t be counted, we may never know.

I think the most striking find in the exit polls was that significant majorities said they supported Kerry on Iraq but Bush on the war on terror. Funny thing is, main thing Bush has done in the name of stopping terror is ignore Osama bin Laden and create a terrorist playground in Iraq, while refusing necessary funding for homeland security. This says to me that Bush succeeded in making terrorism a question of character rather than of policy. Kerry was certainly savaged by the media in the same way Gore was, while Bush too often got a free pass. But Kerry failed for months to put out a coherent, comprehensible message on Iraq (as on too many other issues), and while voters rightly prefered an alleged flip-flopper to an obvious belly-flopper on the issue, I think he shot a lot of his credibility as a strong leader and he may have lost the rhetorical battle for Commander-in-Chief. His unwillingness to aggressively defend himself, especially from the vile Swift Boat Vet attacks, can’t have helped. What’s tragic, of course, is that Bush has flip-flopped far more, even on whether we can win the war on terror, and that the extent his policy has been consistent, it’s been stubbornly, suicidely dangerous. On this issue, as on every issue, some will argue that Kerry was just too left-wing, which is anything but the truth (same goes for Dukakis, Mondale, Gore). A candidate who consistently opposed the war and articulated a clear vision of what to do once we got there could have fared much better.

Then there’s the cluster of issues the media, in an outrageous surrender to the religious right, insist on calling “moral values” (as if healthcare access isn’t a moral value). Here Kerry got painted as a left-winger while abjectly failing to expose the radical right agenda of his opponent. Most voters are opposed to a constitutional ban on all abortion, but Kerry went three debates without mentioning that it’s in the GOP platform. That, and a ban on gay adoption, which is similarly unpopular. And while he started trying towards the end to adopt values language in expressing his position on these issues and on others, it was too little, too late. An individual may be entitled to privacy about his faith and his convictions, religious or otherwise but a Presidential candidate shouldn’t expect to get too far without speaking convincingly about his beliefs and his feelings (I’m hoping to get a chance to read George Lakoff’s new book on this – maybe Kerry should as well).

This election will provide further few to those who argue that Republicans are a cadre of libertarians and the poor are all social conservatives who get convinced by the GOP to ignore class. The first problem with this argument when folks like Michael Lind articulate it is that it ignores the social liberalism of many in the working class. There are others – like the economic breakdown of voting patterns in 2000, which would make David Brooks’ head explode because the fact is Gore got the bottom three sixths and Bush got the top. But few can argue that a not insignificant number of working class voters in this country consistently vote against their economic interests, and that at least in this election, they have enough votes to swing the result. Here too some will argue the Democrats just have to sell out gay folks and feminists to win back the Reagan Democrats. I think Thomas Frank is much closer to the truth: People organize for control over their lives and their environments through the means that appear possible, and the Democrats’ ongoing retreat from an economic agenda which articulates class inequality has left the Republicans’ politics of class aesthetics (stick it to the wealthy liberals by putting prayer back in schools) as an alternative. For all the flack he got over wording, Howard Dean was speaking to an essential truth when he recognized that working-class southern whites don’t have much to show for decades of voting Republican, and Kerry didn’t make the case nearly well enough. He also seems to have bought into Republicans’ claims that Democrats always spend the last few weeks beating old folks over the head with claims that they’ll privatize social security and forgotten that Republicans, in fact, will privatize social security if they can. So he let too many of them get pulled away to the GOP. Part of the irony of the debate over the tension between the left economic agenda and their social agenda, and whether being labelled with the latter stymies the former, is that as far as public opinion goes, I see much more reason for confidence that we’ll have gained tremendous ground on gay marriage in a generation than that we will have on economic justice. As far as policy goes, the next four years are a terrifying prospect for both, and for most things we value in this country.

Don’t mourn. Organize.

David Corn offers a solid defense of Kerry’s progressive credentials – his investigations of Iran-Contra, BCCI, and Vietnam POW/AWOL rumors, and his votes against DOMA and for Clean Elections. He sets out consciously to tell the good parts of the Kerry narrative, and he articulates them well. Corn may very well be right that

there have been times he has shown courage, devotion to justice and commitment to honesty, open government and principle-over-politics. There are few senators of whom that can be said. A full assessment of the man ought to take these portions of his public service into account.

There remain, unfortunately, other portions to be taken into account as well. Alex Cockburn, also in The Nation, a few weeks back summarized some of the major alarms Kerry should be setting off for progressives. But that said, I’m still closer to David Corn than to Cockburn or to this headline from LWB-Idol Sam Smith on this one.

Nick Confessore put together (scroll down to March 4) one of the more judicious assessments I’ve seen of Kerry’s record and various attempts to paint it:

He is pro-welfare reform, a deficit hawk, a good environmentalist, doesn’t want to privatize Social Security or Medicare, supports labor, is basically a free-trader with some occasional gestures towards less-free trade, supports civil unions but not gay marriage, and is a liberal internationalist on foreign policy. In other words, he’s your basic moderate Democrat — not too liberal, not too conservative. That was always his perverse strength. On a scale of one to ten, few Democratic interest groups would give him a ten, but most would give him a seven.

That, as they say, is the good news and the bad news.

The AP reports that Alan Greenspan today urged Congress to cut Social Security benefits in order to keep Social Security solvent. This is only the latest volley from those agitating to burn the village in order to save it. Real social security reform would mean taxing wealth and raising the five-digit maximum income taxed under the payroll tax. But we don’t hear much from either policy about those sorts of plans to “save Social Security.” Mark Weisbrot provides useful perspective in the columns archived here.

David Brooks argues in today’s Times that John Kerry has an “inner Moynihan,” as when the Senator declared:

We have to ask ourselves in 1992 whether this social disintegration is merely a symptom of deteriorating values that has swept all of this country to some degree. We must ask whether it is the result of a massive shift in the psychology of our nation that some argue grew out of the excesses of the 1960’s, a shift from self-reliance to indulgence and dependence, from caring to self-indulgence, from public accountability to public abdication and chaos.

Brooks faults Kerry for talking the talk but not following through on his principles by actually working to halt affirmative action, dismantle Social Security, and punish public school teachers. Needless to say, I think that having an “inner Moynihan” is frightening enough. Although, to be fair, Kerry is not alone among the Democratic contenders in having made Moynihan-like remarks – and taken deeply problematic stances – in the ’90s.

(The answer to Kerry’s questions, by the way, is no)