Wealthy Frenchman

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Badges, Guns and Another Unarmed Victim


This time it was 50 shots from five officers. With Amadou Diallo it was 41 shots from four officers. With Eleanor Bumpurs, an aging, overweight, disoriented grandmother, it was a pair of shotgun blasts from a single officer — inside her apartment!

The decades pass. The stories remain the same. Nathaniel Gaines Jr., a 25-year-old Navy veteran, was shot to death by a cop on a subway platform in the Bronx on the Fourth of July in 1996. The mayor at the time, Rudolph Giuliani, no softy on crime, said of the shooting: “There does not seem to be any reason for it.”

On an April morning in 1973 a veteran cop named Thomas Shea pulled his service revolver and blew away a black kid on a street in Jamaica, Queens. There was no reason on God’s glittering earth for that killing. The kid, Clifford Glover, was 10 years old. The cop shot him in the back.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1976 an officer named Robert Torsney fired a bullet into the head of Randolph Evans, 15, outside a housing project in Brooklyn. No one could explain that killing, either.

Yesterday, under an overcast sky and with a crush of reporters around them, the relatives and fiancée of Sean Bell visited the narrow street in Queens where he was killed in a sudden frantic fusillade of police bullets early last Saturday morning, just a few hours before he was to be married.

Mr. Bell and two friends who had attended his bachelor party at a nearby club were in his car when they were set upon by a group of undercover cops who had been staking out the club. The two friends were seriously wounded in the shooting.

Here is my first quick take on this case: If I was in my car outside a rowdy nightclub in the wee hours of the morning and someone who looked like a club patron came running toward me, screaming and waving a gun, I would immediately slam the gearshift into drive, hit the accelerator and try to get the hell out of there.

This appears to be what happened. The cops, dressed to blend in with the club crowd, were single-mindedly looking for trouble — evidence of prostitution, underage drinking, illegal guns, and so forth. They were looking so hard for criminal behavior that they seem to have imagined it where none was occurring.

One officer is said to have believed that one of Mr. Bell’s companions may have had a gun. No gun was found and there is no evidence that any of the three men were armed at any time.

“It sounds to me like excessive force was used,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who characterized the 50-shot barrage as “unacceptable” and “inexplicable.” Referring to Mr. Bell and his two friends, the mayor said, “There is no evidence that they were doing anything wrong.”

The thing that is most unacceptable about this case is not the total number of shots fired, but the fact that five New York City cops were so willing to begin firing at all — willing to take the life of another human being, and maybe a number of human beings — without ever establishing that there was a good reason for doing so.

Under Mayor Bloomberg, there is a much better tone in the city with regard to police-community relations, and race relations in general. But when it comes to the Police Department, an improved tone won’t count for much if policies and procedures aren’t changed to prevent cops from blowing away innocent individuals with impunity.

This has gone on for far too many decades. Yet there is still no sense among public officials that big changes are necessary. The cops who killed Sean Bell and wounded his two friends haven’t even been questioned yet by the police or investigators from the Queens district attorney’s office. The D.A., Richard Brown, is preparing a grand jury investigation but he told me it could still be weeks before the cops are questioned.

Meanwhile, the community, which is sick of these killings, is simmering. Along with the candles and flower arrangements that have been placed at the site of the shooting were bitter signs denouncing “police murder” and, in some instances, calling for violence.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who represents the Bell family, has publicly called for patience and calm. But he added, and I agree, that the mayor and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly have an obligation to develop effective new strategies for reining in reckless police behavior.

The crucial first step, in my opinion, is to insist that police officers, including those who are black, recognize the essential humanity of all the people they are supposed to be protecting and serving. Not everyone with dark skin is a perp.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Turning on the Puppet



The pictures show a handsome blond kid. Nick Rapavi’s family and friends described him as a tough guy with a selfless streak. He’d wanted to be a marine since high school, and his dress uniform had a parade of medals for heroism in Afghanistan and Iraq, including a Purple Heart. He was on his third overseas deployment, and planned to go to college when he finished this stint in the spring.

The 22-year-old corporal, the oldest son of a dentist, grew up in Northern Virginia in the shadow of the Pentagon. The kid described as being “full of life” died Friday in Anbar Province, the heartless heart of darkness in western Iraq, the hole-in-the-desert stronghold of the Sunni insurgency and Al Qaeda fighters.

His mother told The Washington Post that her son’s squad had approached a gate on patrol, and Nick told his men to “stay back while he went through.” He was shot in the neck by a spectral enemy that melted away, one of 2,874 brave Americans to die fighting in Iraq.

In Latvia, President Bush vowed yesterday that “I’m not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.” But his words about Iraq long ago lost their meaning. Especially the words “mission” and “complete.”

At least in Anbar, the Pentagon may be about to pull troops off the battlefield. In another article yesterday, The Post, reporting on a classified Marine Corps intelligence report, said that “the U.S. military is no longer able to defeat a bloody insurgency in western Iraq or counter Al Qaeda’s rising popularity there.”

The Post went on: “The report describes Iraq’s Sunni minority as ‘embroiled in a daily fight for survival,’ fearful of ‘pogroms’ by the Shiite majority and increasingly dependent on Al Qaeda in Iraq as its only hope against growing Iranian dominance across the capital.”

ABC Nightly News went even further last night, reporting that the Pentagon is “writing off” Anbar and will send the 30,000 marines stationed there to Baghdad. “If we are not going to do a better job doing what we are doing out there,” a military official told Jonathan Karl, “what’s the point of having them out there?”

President Bush is still playing games, trying to link the need to stay in Iraq with Al Qaeda. “No question it’s tough,” Mr. Bush said at a news conference. “There’s a lot of sectarian violence taking place, fomented, in my opinion, because of the attacks by Al Qaeda, causing people to seek reprisal.”

Never mind that W. dropped the ball on Osama, and that his own commanders have estimated that Al Qaeda forces represent only a fraction of the foe in Iraq. Al Qaeda wasn’t even in Iraq until the Bush invasion.

The administration still won’t admit the obvious, that our soldiers are stuck in the middle of a civil war and that it’s going to take more than Dick Cheney powwowing with the Saudis to get us out of it. Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, gingerly talks of “a new phase” in the conflict.

But reality does break through at moments. As Mr. Bush and Mr. Hadley head to Jordan to try to tell Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki not to go all wobbly, a stunning secret memo from Mr. Hadley has surfaced, expressing severe skepticism about whether our latest puppet can cut it.

Michael Gordon reveals in today’s Times that in a classified assessment, Mr. Hadley wrote that the Iraqi leader, who is getting pushed around by Moktada al-Sadr, was having trouble figuring out how to be strong.

“The memo suggests that if Mr. Maliki fails to carry out a series of specified steps,” he writes, “it may ultimately be necessary to press him to reconfigure his parliamentary bloc, a step the United States could support by providing ‘monetary support to moderate groups,’ and by sending thousands of additional American troops into Baghdad to make up for what the document suggests is current shortage of Iraqi forces.”

Just what the election said Americans want: More kids at risk in Baghdad. (W.’s kids, of course, are running their own risks, partying their way through Argentina.)

Mr. Hadley bluntly mused about Mr. Malaki: “His intentions seem good when he talks with Americans, and sensitive reporting suggests he is trying to stand up to the Shi’a hierarchy and force positive change. But the reality on the streets of Baghdad suggests Maliki is either ignorant of what is going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or that his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action.”

It’s bad enough to say that about the Iraqi puppet. But what about when the same is true of the American president?

Monday, November 27, 2006

While Iraq Burns


Americans are shopping while Iraq burns.

The competing television news images on the morning after Thanksgiving were of the unspeakable carnage in Sadr City — where more than 200 Iraqi civilians were killed by a series of coordinated car bombs — and the long lines of cars filled with holiday shopping zealots that jammed the highway approaches to American malls that had opened for business at midnight.

A Wal-Mart in Union, N.J., was besieged by customers even before it opened its doors at 5 a.m. on Friday. “All I can tell you,” said a Wal-Mart employee, “is that they were fired up and ready to spend money.”

There is something terribly wrong with this juxtaposition of gleeful Americans with fistfuls of dollars storming the department store barricades and the slaughter by the thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians, including old people, children and babies. The war was started by the U.S., but most Americans feel absolutely no sense of personal responsibility for it.

Representative Charles Rangel recently proposed that the draft be reinstated, suggesting that politicians would be more reluctant to take the country to war if they understood that their constituents might be called up to fight. What struck me was not the uniform opposition to the congressman’s proposal — it has long been clear that there is zero sentiment in favor of a draft in the U.S. — but the fact that it never provoked even the briefest discussion of the responsibilities and obligations of ordinary Americans in a time of war.

With no obvious personal stake in the war in Iraq, most Americans are indifferent to its consequences. In an interview last week, Alex Racheotes, a 19-year-old history major at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, said: “I definitely don’t know anyone who would want to fight in Iraq. But beyond that, I get the feeling that most people at school don’t even think about the war. They’re more concerned with what grade they got on yesterday’s test.”

His thoughts were echoed by other students, including John Cafarelli, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of New Hampshire, who was asked if he had any friends who would be willing to join the Army. “No, definitely not,” he said. “None of my friends even really care about what’s going on in Iraq.”

This indifference is widespread. It enables most Americans to go about their daily lives completely unconcerned about the atrocities resulting from a war being waged in their name. While shoppers here are scrambling to put the perfect touch to their holidays with the purchase of a giant flat-screen TV or a PlayStation 3, the news out of Baghdad is of a society in the midst of a meltdown.

According to the United Nations, more than 7,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in September and October. Nearly 5,000 of those killings occurred in Baghdad, a staggering figure.

In a demoralizing reprise of life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, the U.N. reported that in Iraq: “The situation of women has continued to deteriorate. Increasing numbers of women were recorded to be either victims of religious extremists or ‘honor killings.’ Some non-Muslim women are forced to wear a headscarf and to be accompanied by spouses or male relatives.”

Journalists in Iraq are being “assassinated with utmost impunity,” the U.N. report said, with 18 murdered in the last two months.

Iraq burns. We shop. The Americans dying in Iraq are barely mentioned in the press anymore. They warrant maybe one sentence in a long roundup article out of Baghdad, or a passing reference — no longer than a few seconds — in a television news account of the latest political ditherings.

Since the vast majority of Americans do not want anything to do with the military or the war, the burden of fighting has fallen on a small cadre of volunteers who are being sent into the war zone again and again. Nearly 3,000 have been killed, and many thousands more have been maimed.

The war has now lasted as long as the American involvement in World War II. But there is no sense of collective sacrifice in this war, no shared burden of responsibility. The soldiers in Iraq are fighting, suffering and dying in a war in which there are no clear objectives and no end in sight, and which a majority of Americans do not support.

They are dying anonymously and pointlessly, while the rest of us are free to buckle ourselves into the family vehicle and head off to the malls and shop.

Paul Krugman is on vacation.

The Empty Chair at the Table



The old stone house in the close-knit Mount Airy neighborhood that Sherwood Baker grew up in had for many years been the scene of rollicking holiday gatherings.

“We would have big, ridiculous dinners,” said his mom, Celeste Zappala. She chuckled. “They weren’t formal, believe me. The dishes wouldn’t match and we’d never have enough silverware. But it was great fun.”

Sherwood, a big man at 6-4 and about 250 pounds, would be there with his wife, Debra, and son, J.D., his two brothers, and sometimes his dad, even though he is divorced from Ms. Zappala. Others would be there, as well. “We’d look for stray people,” Ms. Zappala said, “somebody who didn’t have someone to be with. We could always fit more people around the table. ”

The gatherings are more subdued now. Ms. Zappala can still remember almost every detail of the April evening in 2004 when the man in the dress uniform with the medals on his chest showed up on her porch with the bad news.

“He had a notebook in his hand,” she said. “I could see him very clearly even though it was dark and kind of raining. So I came out on the porch and I looked at him. And I knew, but I didn’t want to know.”

Sgt. Sherwood Baker of the Pennsylvania National Guard had been in Baghdad only six weeks when he was killed. The bitter irony that will always surround his death was the fact that he was helping to provide security for the Iraq Survey Group, which was hunting for the weapons of mass destruction. He died on April 26, 2004, in an explosion at a factory that was being inspected.

Grief is magnified during the holidays, and with the toll in Iraq steadily mounting, there are now thousands of families across the U.S. who are faced, like Sergeant Baker’s relatives, with an awful empty space at their Thanksgiving tables.

Ms. Zappala pulled out photos of Sherwood and the rest of the family laughing it up at holiday parties, and spoke of the ferocious grief that has since gripped everyone. “We won’t be the same now,” she said. “We’re totally different people than we started out to be.”

One of the family’s last Christmas presents for Sergeant Baker was a global positioning device. “He was told that he had to have one,” said Ms. Zappala, “but the Army wouldn’t buy it for him. So we got him one. That was our last Christmas together, 2003. We were all trying to be happy but each of us was frightened and worried about what was going to happen to him.”

Sergeant Baker’s story, for the most part, was typical. He was a social worker who joined the National Guard in 1997 in part for civic reasons, but also because he needed help paying off his college loans. “It was extra money,” his mother said.

What was unusual was that Ms. Zappala was a longtime peace and social justice activist. She opposed the Iraq war from the very beginning, and the last thing in the world that she wanted was for her son to be in it. Sergeant Baker told her not to worry, that no one from the Pennsylvania National Guard had been killed in combat since World War II.

But she worried. And when it was clear that Sergeant Baker would be sent to Iraq, she looked for a way out. “I told him, ‘If you don’t want to do this, I’ll take you to Canada,’” she said. “But he said, ‘No, I made an oath before God. And besides, they would court-martial me. I’ll just go. I’ll do it and I’ll come home.’ ”

Ms. Zappala remains opposed to the war and is an active member of the antiwar group Military Families Speak Out. There’s a sign on her porch that says, “War is Not the Answer.” But she’s found that there’s no comfort to be drawn from her protests, however strongly she believes in them.

“Where’s the comfort in being right?” she asked. “Everything we said was right. Sherwood died looking for the weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. All the nonsense about the Al Qaeda connections and Sept. 11th. They were all lies. It was all wrong. But none of that brings Sherwood back to the table.”

While standing on the porch where she got the terrible news about her son, Ms. Zappala spoke of the many other families that have lost children, or other close relatives, to the war. “I’m very aware that it didn’t just happen to us,” she said. “For everybody, it’s the same horrible loss. It’s the same tragedy. It doesn’t make any difference whether someone was for or against the war. We’ve met families who were very supportive of the war and we were crying with them. The pain is the same.”

Monday, November 20, 2006

Bought and Sold



When Mayor Shirley Franklin recently announced that the city would be cracking down on the pimps and johns who prey on under-age prostitutes, she also disclosed publicly for the first time that she had been molested when she was a young girl.

Speaking at a gathering of reporters, local officials and civic leaders, the mayor spoke frankly about the incident, in which she was abused at the age of 10 by the father of a girlfriend. She then asked how many of the women in attendance had endured similar experiences. Several women in the room raised their hands.

One of the most tightly kept secrets in the U.S. is the extent to which children are sexually exploited, not just by child pornographers and compulsive pedophiles, but by men who are viewed by their relatives, friends and neighbors as quintessentially solid citizens.

In an interview on Friday, Ms. Franklin told me: “It seemed appropriate to reveal my story in that setting, because what we were trying to do is demonstrate that this can happen to anyone. Not only can it happen; it does happen to a lot of children.”

Atlanta has become a major hub of commercial sex in the U.S. It’s a full-fledged sex-tourism destination, with thousands of strippers, prostitutes and other sex workers accommodating an endless stream of johns from around the country. Under-age girls (some as young as 10 and 11) are a significant part of that trade. Many of them were already carrying the scars of sexual molestation when they got into prostitution.

A study of the commercial sexual exploitation of girls in Atlanta, released a year ago by the Atlanta Women’s Agenda, an advisory group formed at the mayor’s request, said:

“Atlanta, being a convention and sports event center, has a thriving ‘adult entertainment’ industry: strip clubs, lingerie and sex shops, escort services, massage parlors. At the same time, Atlanta generates its own lost battalions of emotionally and physically abandoned children and is a magnet for such children from outlying areas. These children are vulnerable to the pimps and their recruiters, but the pimp would have no interest in the children if there were no demand.”

Ms. Franklin, who is 61, is trying to jump-start a cultural change that will expand awareness of the widespread sexual exploitation of children in Atlanta and foster an attitude throughout the city that it is not to be tolerated.

It is beyond unusual for a mayor, especially the mayor of a city that depends as heavily on tourism as Atlanta, to shine a spotlight on a problem as repellent as child prostitution. I asked the mayor why she went ahead with such a high-profile campaign, which includes a “Dear John” initiative that has flooded the city with posters and public service announcements declaring that the men who “buy sex from our kids” will no longer be tolerated.

“We take the position in my administration that the best way to solve a problem is to face the facts,” she said, adding: “We know the problem is here. It’s happening on our watch. It’s unacceptable behavior, and we are not going to stand for it. So look for us to do everything in our power to change it.”

It won’t be easy. Law enforcement agencies have a notoriously poor record when it comes to prosecuting and putting away the pimps, traffickers and johns in the child sex trade. And there are very few resources, financial and otherwise, to help the kids once they are identified.

The mayor acknowledged the heavy lift that will be required: “Normally, by the time girls become prostitutes, there are a lot of other experiences that they’ve had, and you can’t turn that around with a pat on the back and a new set of clothes. There’s a great deal of psychological damage. They’ve lost trust in adults. They’ve lost self-confidence. Many of them have lost the will to do anything differently. They’re demoralized.

“So we’re just getting started. And we’ll be asking for a lot of help.”

The last time I was in Atlanta, about a month ago, I rode with the police as, among other things, they looked for a 15-year-old girl who had become a prostitute and was being used by her pimp to recruit other young girls. I remember looking at a circular with a picture of the child. She had the saddest expression on her face.

Over the weekend I checked with the cops to see if they had found her. “We never did,” said Lt. Keith Meadows, who heads the city’s vice unit. “We have reason to believe that she might have been trafficked out of the state.”

Paul Krugman is on vacation.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

It’s Not the Democrats Who Are Divided

ELECTIONS may come and go, but Washington remains incorrigible. Not even voters delivering a clear message can topple the town’s conventional wisdom once it has been set in the stone of punditry.

Right now the capital is entranced by a fictional story line about the Democrats. As this narrative goes, the party’s sweep of Congress was more or less an accident. The victory had little to do with the Democrats’ actual beliefs and was instead solely the result of President Bush’s unpopularity and a cunning backroom stunt by the campaign Machiavellis, Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel, to enlist a smattering of “conservative” candidates to run in red states. In this retelling of the 2006 election, the signature race took place in Montana, where the victor was a gun-toting farmer with a flattop haircut: i.e., a Democrat in Republican drag. And now the party is deeply divided as its old liberals and new conservatives converge on Capitol Hill to slug it out.

The only problem with this version of events is that it’s not true. The overwhelming majority of the Democratic winners, including Jon Tester of Montana, are to the left of most Republicans, whether on economic policy or abortion. For all of the hyperventilation devoted to the Steny Hoyer-John Murtha bout for the House leadership, the final count was lopsided next to the one-vote margin in the G.O.P. Senate intramural that yielded that paragon of “unity,” Trent Lott. But the most telling barometer is the election’s defining issue: there is far more unanimity among Democrats about Iraq than there is among Republicans. Disengaging America from that war is what the country voted for overwhelmingly on Nov. 7, and that’s what the Democrats almost uniformly promised to speed up, whatever their vague, often inchoate notions about how to do it.

Even before they officially take over, the Democrats are trying to deliver on this pledge. Carl Levin and Joe Biden, among the party’s leaders in thinking through a new Iraq policy, are gravitating toward a long-gestating centrist exit strategy: a phased withdrawal starting in four to six months; a loosely federal Iraqi government that would ratify the de facto separation of the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds and fairly allocate the oil spoils; and diplomacy, diplomacy, diplomacy to engage Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria, in securing some kind of peace.

None of these ideas are radical, novel or much removed from what James Baker’s Iraq Study Group is expected to come up with. All are debatable and all could fail. At this late date, only triage is an option, not “victory.” There’s no panacea to end the civil war that four years of American bumbling have wrought. But the one truly serious story to come out of the election — far more significant than the Washington chatter about “divided Democrats” — is that the president has no intention of changing his policy on Iraq or anything else one iota.

Already we are seeing conclusive evidence that the White House’s post-thumpin’ blather about bipartisanship is worth as little as the “uniter, not a divider” bunk of the past. The tip-off came last week when Mr. Bush renominated a roster of choices for the federal appeals court that he knew faced certain rejection by Democrats. Why? To deliver a message to the entire Senate consonant with the unprintable greeting Dick Cheney once bestowed on Patrick Leahy, the senator from Vermont. That message was seconded by Tony Snow on Monday when David Gregory of NBC News asked him for a response to the Democrats’ Iraq proposals. The press secretary belittled them as “nonspecific” and then tried to deflect the matter entirely by snickering at Mr. Gregory’s follow-up questions.

Don Imus has been rerunning the video ever since, and with good reason. The laughing-while-Baghdad-burns intransigence of the White House makes your blood run cold. The day after Mr. Snow ridiculed alternative policies for Iraq, six American soldiers were killed. It was on that day as well that militia assailants stormed the education ministry in Baghdad in broad daylight, effortlessly carrying out a mass abduction of as many as 150 government officials in some 15 minutes. Given that those kidnappers were probably in cahoots with a faction of the very government they were terrorizing, it would be hard to come up with a more alarming snapshot of those “conditions on the ground” the president keeps talking about: utter chaos, with American troops in the middle, risking their lives to defend which faction, exactly?

Yet here was what Mr. Snow had to say about the war in this same press briefing: “We are winning, but on the other hand, we have not won” and “Our commitment is to get to the point where we achieve victory.” If that’s the specificity the White House offers to counter the Democrats’ “nonspecific” ideas about Iraq, bring back Donald Rumsfeld.

Mr. Snow’s performance was echoed by the more sober but equally nonsensical testimony of Gen. John Abizaid, our chief commander in the Middle East, before the Senate Armed Services Committee less than 48 hours later. It was déjà stay-the-course all over again. The general is not for withdrawing American troops or, as John McCain would prefer, adding them. (General Abizaid delicately pointed out to Mr. McCain that a sustainable supply of new American troops is in any case “simply not something that we have right now”; the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, doesn’t want them even if we did.) The general’s hope instead is for more Iraqi troops, even though, as he conceded, we still don’t have any such forces operating “completely independently” of their embedded American advisers. In other words: We are still, so many sacrifices later, waiting for the Iraqis to stand up so we can stand down.

An even more telling admission was to follow. “General Abizaid,” Jack Reed of Rhode Island asked, “how much time do you think we have to bring down the level of violence in Baghdad before we reach some type of tipping point where it accelerates beyond the control of even the Iraqi government?” After some hemming and hawing came a specific answer: “Four to six months.” Thus did our commander in Iraq provide the perfect exit ramp into the Democrats’ exit strategy, whether intentionally or not: the Iraqis must stand up by exactly the same deadline that Mr. Levin proposed for the start of a phased withdrawal.

Everyone outside of the Bush bunker knows that’s where we’re heading. As the retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey told Keith Olbermann last week, “The American people have walked away from the war.” The general predicted, as many in Washington have, that the Baker commission, serving as a surrogate Papa Bush, would give the White House the “intellectual orchestration” to label the withdrawal “getting out with honor.” But might this Beltway story line, too, be wrong? Everything in the president’s behavior since the election, including his remarkably naïve pronouncements in Vietnam, suggests that he will refuse to catch the political lifeline that Mr. Baker might toss him. Mr. Bush seems more likely instead to use American blood and money to double down on his quixotic notion of “victory” to the end. Not for nothing has he been communing with Henry Kissinger.

So what then? A Democratic Congress can kill judicial appointments but cannot mandate foreign policy. The only veto it can exercise is to cut off the war’s funding, political suicide that the Congressional leadership has rightly ruled out. The plain reality is that the victorious Democrats, united in opposition to the war and uniting around a program for quitting it, have done pretty much all they can do. Republican leaders must join in to seal the deal.

Don’t count Mr. McCain among them. His call for more troops even when there are no more troops is about presidential politics, a dodge that allows him to argue in perpetuity that we never would have lost Iraq if only he had been heeded from the start. True or not, that gets America nowhere now. Look instead to two other Republican military veterans in the Senate, one who is not running for president and one who yet might. The first is John Warner, who said a month before the election that he would seek an overhaul of Iraq policy in 60 to 90 days if there was no progress. The second is Chuck Hagel, who has been prescient about the war’s potential pitfalls since 2002 and started floating exit strategies parallel to the Levin-Biden track last summer.

There’s an incentive for other Republicans to join them in advancing the endgame. Even if the Democrats self-destructively descend into their own Abramoff-style scandals — Mr. Murtha referred to House ethics reforms as “total crap” — that may not be enough to save the Republicans if they’re still staring down the bloody barrel of their Iraq fiasco in 2008.

But most of all, disengagement from Iraq is the patriotic thing to do. Diverting as “divided Democrats” has been, it’s escapist entertainment. The Washington story that will matter most going forward is the fate of the divided Republicans. Only if they heroically come together can the country be saved from a president who, for all his professed pipe dreams about democracy in the Middle East, refuses to surrender to democracy’s verdict at home.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Squeaker of the House


Ted Olson, the former solicitor general and eloquent Republican lawyer who argued the Bush v. Gore case before the Supreme Court, was warming up the rabidly conservative Federalist Society crowd for John McCain with a few sexist cracks about Botox.

The new Congress could amuse itself, he said, by “searching for any sign of movement in Speaker Pelosi’s forehead.” The Senate, he added, would be entertained by “the expressionless, Pelosi-like forehead of Senator Clinton.”

It reminded you of just how idiotic Republicans can act sometimes. The only thing worse than hearing the first female speaker of the House filleted in such a lame way was seeing the first female speaker of the House flail around in her first big week in such a lame way. It reminded you of just how idiotic Democrats can act sometimes.

Nancy Pelosi’s first move, after the Democratic triumph, was to throw like a girl. Women get criticized in the office for acting on relationships and past slights rather than strategy, so Madame Speaker wasted no time making her first move based on relationships and past slights rather than strategy.

Instead of counting votes behind closed doors or even just choosing the best person for majority leader, Ms. Pelosi offered an argument along the lines of: John Murtha’s my friend. He’s been nice to me. I don’t like Steny. He did something a long time ago that was really, really bad that I’m never, ever going to tell you. And I’m the boss of you. So vote for John.

As the adage goes, if you shoot at the king, you’d better kill him. And if you’re the queen and you shoot at your knight, you’d better kill him too, or you end up looking like a weak sister.

Democratic lawmakers, who should have been basking, were left baffled as Nancy, spanked by her flock, strained to make nice with Steny.

“I just wish Mom and Dad would get along so I don’t have to split my weekends,” moaned one.

Everyone in Washington was perplexed at Ms. Pelosi’s ham-handed effort to sabotage not only Mr. Hoyer but her former friend and fellow Californian, Jane Harman. In what looks like another self-defeating personality clash, she has been maneuvering to bypass the senior member of the House Intelligence Committee and give the chairmanship either to the ethically challenged Alcee Hastings of Florida or a compromise candidate, Silvestre Reyes of Texas.

“Jane was very aggressive about going on TV; she was on TV so much she could have gotten a SAG card,” said one top Democrat who knows both women. “Nancy resented that and felt Jane was leeching attention away from her leadership role. That had a lot to do with poisoning the relationship.”

Even Pelosi supporters pointed out that she was squandering her power, and hurting the image of the Democrats by making them look like Democrats. “The better way to do it is to just let your rival go ahead and win and then strip them of everything,” said one. “All of a sudden their office is moved and their wires are disconnected and there’s a Playskool phone on their desk, so that it’s not even worth having the job anymore.”

Even as the speaker was acting girlishly churlish, John McCain was mas machoing the machismo president. In twin speeches Thursday, he wooed the Republican base. “He’s trying to be the leader of a party that hates his guts,” said Rahm Emanuel, the new chairman of the House Democratic caucus.

Mr. McCain told a Gopac dinner audience that he wants more troops in Iraq than even W. is willing to send.

“It is not fair or easy to look a soldier in the eye and tell him he must shoulder a rifle again and risk his life in a third tour in Iraq,” he said. “But ask it we must. If, and I emphasize if, we have the will to win.”

Mr. McCain is right that the deteriorating situation on the ground calls for more boots and if troops start to withdraw, further chaos will ensue. But even many of the generals and hawks in his own party now believe that a lasting military victory is impossible, no matter how many troops America sends. The best that can be hoped for by the Republicans and Senator McCain — who will have trouble running as a cheerleader for more war in a nation sick of war and heartsick at so many deaths — is that James Baker can finagle a dignified exit.

Madame Speaker made the mistake of speaking out before she had counted her troops. The Arizona senator knows the body count in Iraq and is still calling for more troops.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Story of Struggle and Hope


Watching “Eyes on the Prize” again was like reminiscing with an old friend or relative about the bad old days that, in some important respects, were also the good old days.

Already the story so brilliantly told by this masterpiece of documentary filmmaking, the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and ’60s, is fading, like the images on old film stock, from our collective consciousness.

It’s fantastic to have a memorial to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall in Washington. But “Eyes on the Prize” is the most powerful reminder we have of how broad the struggle was, how many people of great courage — from small children to very old men and women — signed on to it, how many of them suffered and sometimes died, and what all of us owe to all of them.

“Eyes on the Prize” shows us the many tragic byproducts of insane bigotry, like the hanging bodies of blacks who were lynched, their heads and necks forever frozen at grotesque angles. It shows us young whites beating the daylights out of unresisting protesters who had the temerity to take a seat at a segregated lunch counter.

These are things that should never be forgotten.

The bigotry of the period was so pervasive it flowed easily from the mouths of people who considered themselves sympathetic to the plight of blacks. A well-groomed, obviously middle-class white woman smiles into the camera and says, “I have thought for a long time that nigras should be allowed to sit at the counters where we are served downtown.”

“Eyes” first ran in 1987 and is being shown again this fall on PBS. Understated, mostly in black and white, it has lost none of its startling emotional impact. There were moments, as I watched the episodes unfold, when I wanted to jump through the television and throttle somebody.

Because of a logistical mix-up on Sept. 4, 1957, Elizabeth Eckford, a 15-year-old black student who dreamed of becoming a lawyer, showed up alone on the first day of the attempted integration of all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. (Eight other students, accompanied by adults, arrived at the school in a group.) Ms. Eckford was met by a mob of whites and a contingent of National Guard soldiers who were determined to keep blacks out of the school.

The images of this frightened young girl in sunglasses and a white dress surrounded by adults who were all but foaming at the mouth, calling her the worst names, and screaming that she should be killed, lynched, for trying to go to school, never fail to enrage.

I think of “Eyes on the Prize” as a gift from the filmmaker Henry Hampton, whose goal was not just to document the struggle but to show it from the perspective of the people who were there. He once told me: “You have to get the story right in order to get its meaning. And the way to get it right it is to listen to the people who lived it.”

Mr. Hampton, who had suffered from polio as a child, died from the effects of lung cancer in 1998. He was only 58.

For all the hideous occurrences documented in the series — the murder of Emmett Till, the church bombing in Birmingham that killed four young girls in 1963, the tragic “freedom summer” in Mississippi the following year — there is nevertheless the stirring sense of achievement that runs like a golden thread through the narrative.

The bad old days were also the good old days in the sense that one can look back at many wonderful things that were associated with the movement — the iron-willed commitment of so many people, the sense of a great and common endeavor, the lifetime friendships that were forged, and the pride that came from an unwillingness, in even the darkest hours, to accept defeat.

There are many people now who have never heard of Emmett Till or Roy Wilkins or James Farmer, or the Edmund Pettus Bridge or the 16th Street Baptist Church, which is reason enough to want “Eyes on the Prize” to be with us forever.

Black Americans are far better off in almost every respect than they were in the mid-1960s, thanks in large part to the successes of the movement. But racism and discrimination persist, and there are still substantial disparities between blacks and whites on most indicators of social and economic well-being. There is also much still to be done about the self-inflicted wounds that have hindered the progress of many blacks.

“Eyes on the Prize” is a demonstration that even the greatest challenges can be overcome. It’s a national treasure, important for all the reasons that history is important.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Pouring Chardonnay Diplomacy



The foreign affairs fur is flying.

I’m not talking about the catfight between two strong-willed, expensively dressed Democratic pols married to California gazillionaires, with Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi trying to yank Jane Harman from heading the House Intelligence Committee.

I’m talking about the catfight between the Idealists and the Realists.

After an election that spurned ideology, and the triumphant return of the Bush 41 pragmatists James Baker and Robert Gates, the self-proclaimed Idealists are reduced to hissing from the sidelines.

The Vulcans and neocons had grandiose plans to restore trumpets, morality and spine to foreign policy, to establish America as a hyperpower with a duty to export democracy — by force and on its own, if necessary. But now the grandiose experiment of Iraq is in a sulfurous shambles, and the Realpolitik crowd is back cleaning up.

In The Wall Street Journal, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute railed against the evils of “chardonnay diplomacy,” recalling that in 1983, Donald Rumsfeld, President Reagan’s Middle East envoy, met with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, hoping to restore relations out of a concern over growing Iranian influence. He didn’t bother to mention Saddam’s use of chemical weapons.

“Mr. Gates was the C.I.A.’s deputy director for intelligence at the time of Mr. Rumsfeld’s infamous handshake, deputy director of central intelligence when Saddam gassed the Kurds, and deputy national security adviser when Saddam crushed the Shiite uprising,” Mr. Rubin wrote. “Mr. Baker was as central.”

Rummy, he said, “worked to right past wrongs.” By contrast, the neocons fear, Mr. Gates and Mr. Baker are back winking at dictators. Already they’re talking about cozying up to the evil leaders of Iran and Syria and perhaps dreaming of more concessions to the Palestinians. (Israel and its supporters among Christian evangelicals are having conniptions.)

The Idealists who loved Ronald Reagan’s evocation of Thomas Paine — “We have it in our power to begin the world over again” — are right that Americans yearn for a moral foreign policy. It was sickening in 1989 to see Brent Scowcroft — another realist back in fashion — offering a cozy supper toast to Chinese leaders only six months after Tiananmen Square, and getting Poppy to lecture Ukrainians not to break the iron grip of Moscow.

It was sickening, after Bush père sold the Persian Gulf war as a moral mission, to see the 41 team decide at the end not to intervene to stop Saddam from slaughtering thousands of innocent Shiites and Kurds who rose up as the president had asked.

It was sickening when the first Bush administration decided to do nothing about the genocidal Serbian war on Bosnia in 1992. As Secretary of State Baker frostily explained, “We do not have a dog in that fight.” Justifying the administration’s tough stance toward Israel, the Velvet Hammer made another notorious comment. “(Expletive deleted) the Jews,” he told a colleague privately. “They didn’t vote for us anyway.”

But while the Idealists have a point, they also have a problem. Their moral war in Iraq was sold four years ago with two big lies: that Saddam had W.M.D. and that the Iraqis were yearning for democracy. And it has continued in a fog of deception about imaginary progress. It is immoral to put troops’ lives at risk because one is doctrinaire, to make people die for a failure of flexibility.

America’s bungled occupation and naïve assumptions unleashed sectarian bloodletting that could ultimately, as The Times’s John Burns wrote, “match the mass killing that characterized Mr. Hussein’s psychopathic years in power” and embolden authoritarian Arab leaders.

Bush junior cast himself as the Reagan heir. But as President Reagan showed in Lebanon, when he pulled out troops after 241 servicemen were blown up, and in Reykjavik negotiating with Mikhail Gorbachev on nuclear arms, he was incredibly flexible — an effective contrast with his inflexible rhetoric. He pursued openings and even radical diplomacy. If the Gipper was wood, the Decider is stone.

Voters rejected W.’s black-and-white, good-and-evil, incompetent foreign policy last week. The president got the message that some shades of gray were desirable and brought in the family fixer with the bright green ties, who is perfectly positioned to come up with a solution that will fly in Washington and flop in Baghdad.

As the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr taught, morality without realism is naïvité or worse, and realism without morality is cynicism or worse. Morality should open your eyes, not close them.

Monday, November 13, 2006

True Blue Populists


Senator George Allen of Virginia is understandably shocked and despondent. Just a year ago, a National Review cover story declared that his “down-home persona” made him “quite possibly the next president of the United States.” Instead, his political career seems over.

And it wasn’t just macaca, or even the war, that brought him down. Mr. Allen, a reliable defender of the interests of the economic elite, found himself facing an opponent who made a point of talking about the problem of rising inequality. And the tobacco-chewing, football-throwing, tax-cutting, Social Security-privatizing senator was only one of many faux populists defeated by real populists last Tuesday.

Ever since movement conservatives took over, the Republican Party has pushed for policies that benefit a small minority of wealthy Americans at the expense of the great majority of voters. To hide this reality, conservatives have relied on wagging the dog and wedge issues, but they’ve also relied on a brilliant marketing campaign that portrays Democrats as elitists and Republicans as representatives of the average American.

This sleight of hand depends on shifting the focus from policy to personal style: John Kerry speaks French and windsurfs, so pay no attention to his plan to roll back tax cuts for the wealthy and use the proceeds to make health care affordable.

This year, however, the American people wised up.

True to form, some reporters still seem to be falling for the conservative spin. “If it walks, talks like a conservative, can it be a Dem?” asked the headline on a CNN.com story featuring a photo of Senator-elect Jon Tester of Montana. In other words, if a Democrat doesn’t fit the right-wing caricature of a liberal, he must be a conservative.

But as Robin Toner and Kate Zernike of The New York Times pointed out yesterday, what actually characterizes the new wave of Democrats is a “strong streak of economic populism.”

Look at Mr. Tester’s actual policy positions: yes to an increase in the minimum wage; no to Social Security privatization; we need to “stand up to big drug companies” and have Medicare negotiate for lower prices; we should “stand up to big insurance companies and support a health care plan that makes health care affordable for all Montanans.”

So what, aside from his flattop haircut, makes Mr. Tester a conservative? O.K., he supports gun rights. But on economic issues he’s clearly left of center, not just compared with the current Senate, but compared with current Democratic senators. The same can be said of many other victorious Democrats, including Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, Sheldon Whitehouse in Rhode Island, and Sherrod Brown in Ohio. All of these candidates ran on unabashedly populist platforms, and won.

What about Joe Lieberman? Like shipwreck survivors clinging to flotsam, some have seized on his reelection as proof of Americans’ continuing conservatism. But Mr. Lieberman won only through denial and deception, for example, by rewriting the history of his once-fervent support for the Iraq war and Donald Rumsfeld. He got two-thirds of the Republican vote, but managed to confuse enough Democrats about his positions to get over the top.

Last week’s populist wave, among other things, vindicates the populist direction that Al Gore took in the closing months of the 2000 campaign. But will this wave be reflected in the actual direction of the Democratic Party?

Not necessarily. Quite a few sitting Democrats have shown themselves nearly as willing as Republicans to bow to corporate interests. Consider the vote on last year’s draconian bankruptcy bill. Mr. Lieberman voted for cloture, cutting off debate and ensuring the bill’s passage; then he voted against the bill, a meaningless gesture that let him have it both ways. Thirteen other Democratic senators also voted for cloture, including Joe Biden, who has just announced his candidacy for president.

The first big test of the new Democratic populism will come over reform of the 2003 prescription drug law. Democrats have pledged to repeal the clause in that law preventing Medicare from negotiating lower drug prices. But the fine print of how they do that is crucial: Medicare reform could be a mere symbolic gesture, or it could be a real reform that eliminates the huge implicit subsidies the program currently gives drug and insurance companies.

Are the newly invigorated Democrats ready to offer a real change in this country’s direction? We’ll know in a few months.

The Fading Dream


“America moved me all over again — it was an amazing place, the idea of it astounding.”

—Arthur Miller

Rumsfeld is exiting stage left and the curtain is coming down on George W. Bush’s Theater of the Absurd. A rival company is setting up shop and expectations are high.

O.K., Democrats. Now what? Inquiring minds want to know if the new troupe will make us laugh, cheer, or cry.

First, let’s stipulate that there are limits to what the party can achieve in the next two years, even with control of both houses of Congress. But the two most important tasks facing the Democrats are doable. The first is to ensure that Congress fulfills its constitutional obligation to impose a check on the excesses of the executive.

The second task is to respond to the anxiety that has seeped through much of the electorate about the state of the nation. Americans are worried about the war, the political and economic situation here at home, the way the U.S. is perceived by the rest of the world, and the direction in which the country is heading.

The Democrats didn’t win the off-year elections, the Republicans lost them. And I’m convinced that the Republicans lost because while they were in charge (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”) millions of Americans began to lose confidence in those things that had moved them about America — its awesome power to do good, its ethical underpinnings, and most important, that incredible array of qualities that fell under the magical, mystical heading, the American dream.

A real-life metaphor for what has happened to America occurred last week on the west side of Manhattan. After inviting hundreds of well-wishers to watch, officials had planned to tow the aircraft carrier Intrepid from its dock to a facility on the other side of the Hudson River, where it would undergo a major overhaul. But when the time for its departure arrived, the Intrepid, which has served for years as a popular Sea, Air and Space Museum, could not be budged. It was stuck in the mud beneath the river.

The Intrepid was commissioned in 1943, when the U.S. still knew how to win wars. Its active history encompassed that extraordinary post-World War II period when bold leadership and a sense of common purpose transformed the U.S. and made it the envy of the world. That leadership and sense of common purpose has since been largely lost.

The elite now send other people’s children off to fight and die in wars that are unwinnable. On the home front, a two-tiered economy has been put in place in which a small percentage of the population does extremely well while a majority of working Americans are in an all-but-permanent state of anxiety about job security, pensions, the economic impact of globalization, the cost of health care, college tuition, and so on.

For perhaps the first time in history, there is a large swath of Americans who are worried that over the long haul their children will not fare as well as they have.

For resurgent Democrats there is no better touchstone right now than Franklin Roosevelt. He understood the corrosive effects of prolonged economic insecurity and the essential need for cooperation in the effort to build a successful society. His goal was “to make a country in which no one is left out.”

Roosevelt had both the vision and the political skills, including an indestructible sense of optimism, to galvanize the nation in some of its darkest hours. Those qualities have been in short supply among the terminally timid Democrats of recent years.

Last week, the voters gave the Democrats another opportunity to lead, not just on the war in Iraq, but on such questions as how best to deal with globalization, how to make real progress toward energy independence, and how to ensure that the economic benefits of a wealthy nation are more equitably shared.

What voters really want to know is whether the American dream will still be there for the next generation.

In Congress over the next two years, and in the presidential campaign of 2008, the Democrats will have to respond to that question with a coherent vision of the nation’s future and a cadre of leaders who, like Roosevelt, can convey that vision convincingly and optimistically.

There’s a reason why the Democratic figure generating the most excitement at the moment, Barack Obama, titled his latest book, “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.”

Saturday, November 11, 2006

2006: The Year of the ‘Macaca’

OF course, the “thumpin’ ” was all about Iraq. But let us not forget Katrina. It was the collision of the twin White House calamities in August 2005 that foretold the collapse of the presidency of George W. Bush.

Back then, the full measure of the man finally snapped into focus for most Americans, sending his poll numbers into the 30s for the first time. The country saw that the president who had spurned a grieving wartime mother camping out in the sweltering heat of Crawford was the same guy who had been unable to recognize the depth of the suffering in New Orleans’s fetid Superdome. This brand of leadership was not the “compassionate conservatism” that had been sold in all those photo ops with African-American schoolchildren. This was callous conservatism, if not just plain mean.

It’s the kind of conservatism that remains silent when Rush Limbaugh does a mocking impersonation of Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s symptoms to score partisan points. It’s the kind of conservatism that talks of humane immigration reform but looks the other way when candidates demonize foreigners as predatory animals. It’s the kind of conservatism that pays lip service to “tolerance” but stalls for days before taking down a campaign ad caricaturing an African-American candidate as a sexual magnet for white women.

This kind of politics is now officially out of fashion. Harold Ford did lose his race in Tennessee, but by less than three points in a region that has not sent a black man to the Senate since Reconstruction. Only 36 years old and hugely talented, he will rise again even as the last vestiges of Jim Crow tactics continue to fade and Willie Horton ads countenanced by a national political party join the Bush dynasty in history’s dustbin.

Elsewhere, the 2006 returns more often than not confirmed that Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, are far better people than this cynical White House takes them for. This election was not a rebuke merely of the reckless fiasco in Iraq but also of the divisive ideology that had come to define the Bush-Rove-DeLay era. This was the year that Americans said a decisive no to the politics of “macaca” just as firmly as they did to pre-emptive war and Congressional corruption.

For all of Mr. Limbaugh’s supposed clout, his nasty efforts did not defeat the ballot measure supporting stem-cell research in his native state, Missouri. The measure squeaked through, helping the Democratic senatorial candidate knock out the Republican incumbent. (The other stem-cell advocates endorsed by Mr. Fox in campaign ads, in Maryland and Wisconsin, also won.) Arizona voters, despite their proximity to the Mexican border, defeated two of the crudest immigrant-bashing demagogues running for Congress, including one who ran an ad depicting immigrants menacing a JonBenet Ramsey look-alike. (Reasserting its Goldwater conservative roots, Arizona also appears to be the first state to reject an amendment banning same-sex marriage.) Nationwide, the Republican share of the Hispanic vote fell from 44 percent in 2004 to 29 percent this year. Hispanics aren’t buying Mr. Bush’s broken-Spanish shtick anymore; they saw that the president, despite his nuanced take on immigration, never stood up forcefully to the nativists in his own camp when it counted most, in an election year.

But for those who’ve been sickened by the Bush-Rove brand of politics, surely the happiest result of 2006 was saved for last: Jim Webb’s ousting of Senator George Allen in Virginia. It is all too fitting that this race would be the one that put the Democrats over the top in the Senate. Mr. Allen was the slickest form of Bush-Rove conservative, complete with a strategist who’d helped orchestrate the Swift Boating of John Kerry. Mr. Allen was on a fast track to carry that banner into the White House once Mr. Bush was gone. His demise was so sudden and so unlikely that it seems like a fairy tale come true.

As recently as April 2005, hard as it is to believe now, Mr. Allen was chosen in a National Journal survey of Beltway insiders as the most likely Republican presidential nominee in 2008. Political pros saw him as a cross between Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush whose “affable” conservatism and (contrived) good-old-boy persona were catnip to voters. His Senate campaign this year was a mere formality; he began with a double-digit lead.

That all ended famously on Aug. 11, when Mr. Allen, appearing before a crowd of white supporters in rural Virginia, insulted a 20-year-old Webb campaign worker of Indian descent who was tracking him with a video camera. After belittling the dark-skinned man as “macaca, or whatever his name is,” Mr. Allen added, “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”

The moment became a signature cultural event of the political year because the Webb campaign posted the video clip on YouTube.com, the wildly popular site that most politicians, to their peril, had not yet heard about from their children. Unlike unedited bloggorhea, which can take longer to slog through than Old Media print, YouTube is all video snippets all the time; the one-minute macaca clip spread through the national body politic like a rabid virus. Nonetheless it took more than a week for Mr. Allen to recognize the magnitude of the problem and apologize to the object of his ridicule. Then he compounded the damage by making a fool of himself on camera once more, this time angrily denying what proved to be accurate speculation that his mother was a closeted Jew. It was a Mel Gibson meltdown that couldn’t be blamed on the bottle.

Mr. Allen has a history of racial insensitivity. He used to display a Confederate flag in his living room and, bizarrely enough, a noose in his office for sentimental reasons that he could never satisfactorily explain. His defense in the macaca incident was that he had no idea that the word, the term for a genus of monkey, had any racial connotation. But even if he were telling the truth — even if Mr. Allen were not a racist — his non-macaca words were just as damning. “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia” was unmistakably meant to demean the young man as an unwashed immigrant, whatever his race. It was a typical example of the us-versus-them stridency that has defined the truculent Bush-Rove fearmongering: you’re either with us or you’re a traitor, possibly with the terrorists.

As it happened, the “macaca” who provoked the senator’s self-destruction, S. R. Sidarth, was not an immigrant but the son of immigrants. He was born in Washington’s Virginia suburbs to well-off parents (his father is a mortgage broker) and is the high-achieving graduate of a magnet high school, a tournament chess player, a former intern for Joe Lieberman, a devoted member of his faith (Hindu) and, currently, a senior at the University of Virginia. He is even a football jock like Mr. Allen. In other words, he is an exemplary young American who didn’t need to be “welcomed” to his native country by anyone. The Sidarths are typical of the families who have abetted the rapid growth of northern Virginia in recent years, much as immigrants have always built and renewed our nation. They, not Mr. Allen with his nostalgia for the Confederate “heritage,” are America’s future. It is indeed just such northern Virginians who have been tinting the once reliably red commonwealth purple.

Though the senator’s behavior was toxic, the Bush-Rove establishment rewarded it. Its auxiliaries from talk radio, the blogosphere and the Wall Street Journal opinion page echoed the Allen campaign’s complaint that the incident was inflated by the news media, especially The Washington Post. Once it became clear that Mr. Allen was in serious trouble, conservative pundits mainly faulted him for running an “awful campaign,” not for being an awful person.

The macaca incident had resonance beyond Virginia not just because it was a hit on YouTube. It came to stand for 2006 as a whole because it was synergistic with a national Republican campaign that made a fetish of warning that a Congress run by Democrats would have committee chairmen who are black (Charles Rangel) or gay (Barney Frank), and a middle-aged woman not in the Stepford mold of Laura Bush as speaker. In this context, Mr. Allen’s defeat was poetic justice: the perfect epitaph for an era in which Mr. Rove systematically exploited the narrowest prejudices of the Republican base, pitting Americans of differing identities in cockfights for power and profit, all in the name of “faith.”

Perhaps the most interesting finding in the exit polls Tuesday was that the base did turn out for Mr. Rove: white evangelicals voted in roughly the same numbers as in 2004, and 71 percent of them voted Republican, hardly a mass desertion from the 78 percent of last time. But his party was routed anyway. It was the end of the road for the boy genius and his can’t-miss strategy that Washington sycophants predicted could lead to a permanent Republican majority.

What a week this was! Here’s to the voters of both parties who drove a stake into the heart of our political darkness. If you’ll forgive me for paraphrasing George Allen: Welcome back, everyone, to the world of real America.

Drapes of Wrath


The new Democratic sweep conjures up an ancient image: Furies swooping down to punish bullies.

Angry winged goddesses with dog heads, serpent hair and blood eyes, unmoved by tears, prayer, sacrifice or nasty campaign ads, avenging offenses by insolent transgressors.

This will be known as the year macho politics failed — mainly because it was macho politics by marshmallow men. Voters were sick of phony swaggering, blustering and bellicosity, absent competency and accountability. They were ready to trade in the deadbeat Daddy party for the sheltering Mommy party.

All the conservative sneering about a fem-lib from San Francisco who was measuring the drapes for the speaker’s office didn’t work. Americans wanted new drapes, and an Armani granny with a whip in charge.

A recent study found that the testosterone of American men has been dropping for 20 years, but in Republican Washington, it was running amok, and not in a good way. Men who had refused to go to an untenable war themselves were now refusing to find an end to another untenable war that they had recklessly started.

Republicans were oddly oblivious to the fact that they had turned into a Thomas Nast cartoon: an unappetizing tableau of bloated, corrupt, dissembling, feckless white hacks who were leaving kids unprotected. Tom DeLay and Bob Ney sneaking out of Congress with dollar bills flying out of their pockets. Denny Hastert playing Cardinal Bernard Law, shielding Mark Foley. Rummy, cocky and obtuse as he presided over an imploding Iraq, while failing to give young men and women in the military the armor, support and strategy they needed to come home safely. Dick Cheney, vowing bullheadedly to move “full speed ahead” on Iraq no matter what the voters decided. W. frantically yelling about how Democrats would let the terrorists win, when his lame-brained policies had spawned more terrorists.

After 9/11, Americans had responded to bellicosity, drawn to the image, as old as the Western frontier myth, of the strong father protecting the home from invaders. But this time, many voters, especially women, rejected the rough Rovian scare and divide tactics.

The macho poses and tough talk of the cowboy president were undercut when he seemed flaccid in the face of the vicious Katrina and the vicious Iraq insurgency.

Even former members of the administration conceded they were tired of the muscle-bound style, longing for a more maternal approach to the globe. “We were exporting our anger and our fear, hatred for what had happened,” Richard Armitage, the former deputy secretary of state, said in a speech in Australia, referring to the 9/11 attacks. He said America needed “to turn another face to the world and get back to more traditional things, such as the export of hope and opportunity and inspiration.”

Talking about hope and opportunity and inspiration has propelled Barack Obama into the presidential arena. His approach seems downright feminine when compared with the Bushies, or even Hillary Clinton. He languidly poses in fashion magazines, shares feelings with Oprah and dishes with the ladies on “The View.” After six years of chest-puffing, Senator Obama seems very soothing.

Because of the power of female consumers, some marketing experts predict we will end up a matriarchy. This year, women also flexed their muscle at the polls, transformed into electoral Furies by the administration’s stubborn course in Iraq.

On Tuesday, 51 percent of the voters were women, and 55 percent of women voted for the Democratic candidate. It was a revival of the style of Bill Clinton, dubbed our first female president, who knitted together a winning coalition of independents, moderates and suburbanites.

According to The Times’s exit polls, women were more likely than men to want some or all of the troops to be withdrawn from Iraq now, and 64 percent of women said that the war in Iraq has not improved U.S. security.

The Senate has a new high of 16 women and the House has a new high of at least 70, with a few races outstanding. Hillary’s big win will strengthen her presidential tentacles.

Nancy Pelosi, who will be the first female speaker, softened her voice and look as she cracked the whip on her undisciplined party, taking care not to sound shrill. When she needs to, though, she says she can use her “mother-of-five voice.”

At least for the moment, W. isn’t blustering and Cheney has lost his tubby swagger. The president is trying to ride the Mommy vibe. He even offered Madame Speaker help with those new drapes.

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Great Revulsion

I’m not feeling giddy as much as greatly relieved. O.K., maybe a little giddy. Give ’em hell, Harry and Nancy!

Here’s what I wrote more than three years ago, in the introduction to my column collection “The Great Unraveling”: “I have a vision — maybe just a hope — of a great revulsion: a moment in which the American people look at what is happening, realize how their good will and patriotism have been abused, and put a stop to this drive to destroy much of what is best in our country.”

At the time, the right was still celebrating the illusion of victory in Iraq, and the bizarre Bush personality cult was still in full flower. But now the great revulsion has arrived.

Tuesday’s election was a truly stunning victory for the Democrats. Candidates planning to caucus with the Democrats took 24 of the 33 Senate seats at stake this year, winning seven million more votes than Republicans. In House races, Democrats received about 53 percent of the two-party vote, giving them a margin more than twice as large as the 2.5-percentage-point lead that Mr. Bush claimed as a “mandate” two years ago — and the margin would have been even bigger if many Democrats hadn’t been running unopposed.

The election wasn’t just the end of the road for Mr. Bush’s reign of error. It was also the end of the 12-year Republican dominance of Congress. The Democrats will now hold a majority in the House that is about as big as the Republicans ever achieved during that era of dominance.

Moreover, the new Democratic majority may well be much more effective than the majority the party lost in 1994. Thanks to a great regional realignment, in which a solid Northeast has replaced the solid South, Democratic control no longer depends on a bloc of Dixiecrats whose ideological sympathies were often with the other side of the aisle.

Now, I don’t expect or want a permanent Democratic lock on power. But I do hope and believe that this election marks the beginning of the end for the conservative movement that has taken over the Republican Party.

In saying that, I’m not calling for or predicting the end of conservatism. There always have been and always will be conservatives on the American political scene. And that’s as it should be: a diversity of views is part of what makes democracy vital.

But we may be seeing the downfall of movement conservatism — the potent alliance of wealthy individuals, corporate interests and the religious right that took shape in the 1960s and 1970s. This alliance may once have had something to do with ideas, but it has become mainly a corrupt political machine, and America will be a better place if that machine breaks down.

Why do I want to see movement conservatism crushed? Partly because the movement is fundamentally undemocratic; its leaders don’t accept the legitimacy of opposition. Democrats will only become acceptable, declared Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, once they “are comfortable in their minority status.” He added, “Any farmer will tell you that certain animals run around and are unpleasant, but when they’ve been fixed, then they are happy and sedate.”

And the determination of the movement to hold on to power at any cost has poisoned our political culture. Just think about the campaign that just ended, with its coded racism, deceptive robo-calls, personal smears, homeless men bused in to hand out deceptive fliers, and more. Not to mention the constant implication that anyone who questions the Bush administration or its policies is very nearly a traitor.

When movement conservatism took it over, the Republican Party ceased to be the party of Dwight Eisenhower and became the party of Karl Rove. The good news is that Karl Rove and the political tendency he represents may both have just self-destructed.

Two years ago, people were talking about permanent right-wing dominance of American politics. But since then the American people have gotten a clearer sense of what rule by movement conservatives means. They’ve seen the movement take us into an unnecessary war, and botch every aspect of that war. They’ve seen a great American city left to drown; they’ve seen corruption reach deep into our political process; they’ve seen the hypocrisy of those who lecture us on morality.

And they just said no.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Ms. Speaker and Other Trends

Sometimes you can actually feel the winds of history blowing.

During a post-election party at a seafood restaurant in Harlem on Tuesday night, someone in the crush of people around the veteran Congressman Charles Rangel asked if it was safe to start calling him “Mr. Chairman.” It was a little after 10:30 and a light rain was falling outside.

In Washington, Karl Rove was getting ready to more or less formally break the news to President Bush that control of the House was gone. (The two men were already sitting on the secret that Donald Rumsfeld would soon be gone, too.)

Also in Washington, Nancy Pelosi, the 66-year-old grandmother who had been portrayed as some kind of raving San Francisco radical in countless Republican campaign ads, began accepting the hugs and kisses of relatives and close friends as one Republican seat after another fell to the Democrats.

The George W. Bush era, which will ultimately be seen as a fear-induced anomaly in American history, all but breathed its last on Tuesday night. It will be replaced by a new, less fearful and more hopeful period, led by a cast of characters that is astonishingly diverse by American historical standards.

As the soon-to-be chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, with its oversight of such crucial matters as tax policy, Social Security and Medicare, Mr. Rangel, who is 76 (“I’ve stopped buying green bananas”), will become one of the most powerful African-Americans ever to sit in Congress.

Ms. Pelosi, as speaker of the House (second in line to the presidency, behind the vice president), will be the most powerful woman ever to sit in Congress. While these are important firsts, what seems more important is that it is starting to seem normal to have ethnic minorities and women holding — or seriously contending for — the highest offices in the land.

On Tuesday night, as Mr. Rangel and Ms. Pelosi were finally getting the news that the Democrats had taken control of the House, Deval Patrick was already celebrating his historic election as the first black governor of Massachusetts. The banner headline in The Boston Globe yesterday was: “It’s Patrick in a Romp.”

Not so long ago, these achievements were just about inconceivable. The winds of history are blowing a gale, and the landscape is seriously changing.

There will be 16 women in the Senate next year. The leading Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2008 is Hillary Rodham Clinton and the person most talked about recently as a threat to her nomination is Barack Obama.

Even the defeat of Harold Ford, who was vying for the seat held by the retiring Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, carried important kernels of hope for a more tolerant America. That a black candidate could mount a serious run at all in Tennessee was remarkable. A racist television ad was apparently effective in turning some voters away from Mr. Ford, but he still came within three percentage points of winning.

And there didn’t seem to be much evidence that white voters lied to pollsters about whether they would vote for Mr. Ford, a phenomenon that has occurred in other high-profile races where pre-election polls showed black candidates getting more votes than they actually tallied on Election Day.

President Bush deserves credit for making it easier for minorities and women to reach the heights of public service in the U.S. Whatever one thinks of Mr. Bush’s policies, the appointment of individuals like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice to some of the highest posts in his administration helped normalize the idea of blacks and women serving in such high offices. People get used to it, the way they got used to seeing blacks and women as anchors on television.

Charlie Rangel smiled when the gentleman asked if it was O.K. to call him Mr. Chairman. “I think so,” he said, a little wary but also a little proud.

These are not radicals, just normal, talented people stepping into very high-powered positions.

How normal? Well, Nancy Pelosi’s daughter, Alexandra, who lives in New York, is due to have Ms. Pelosi’s sixth grandchild at any moment. When Ms. Pelosi’s phone rang early yesterday morning, an aide had to wake her. “Did we have the baby?” she asked.

No, she was told. It was the president on the line, calling with his congratulations.

A Come-to-Daddy Moment

Poppy Bush and James Baker gave Sonny the presidency to play with and he broke it. So now they’re taking it back.

They are dragging W. away from those reckless older guys who have been such a bad influence and getting him some new minders who are a lot more practical.

In a scene that might be called “Murder on the Oval Express,” Rummy turned up dead with so many knives in him that it’s impossible to say who actually finished off the man billed as Washington’s most skilled infighter. (Poppy? Scowcroft? Baker? Laura? Condi? The Silver Fox? Retired generals? Serving generals? Future generals? Troops returning to Iraq for the umpteenth time without a decent strategy? Democrats? Republicans? Joe Lieberman?)

The defense chief got hung out to dry before Saddam got hung. The president and Karl Rove, underestimating the public’s hunger for change or overestimating the loyalty of a fed-up base, did not ice Rummy in time to save the Senate from teetering Democratic. But once Sonny managed to heedlessly dynamite the Republican majority — as well as the Middle East, the Atlantic alliance and the U.S. Army — then Bush Inc., the family firm that snatched the presidency for W. in 2000, had to step in. Two trusted members of the Bush 41 war council, Mr. Baker and Robert Gates, have been dispatched to discipline the delinquent juvenile and extricate him from the mother of all messes.

Mr. Gates, already on Mr. Baker’s “How Do We Get Sonny Out of Deep Doo Doo in Iraq?” study group, left his job protecting 41’s papers at Texas A&M to return to Washington and pry the fingers of Poppy’s old nemesis, Rummy, off the Pentagon.

“They had to bring in someone from the old gang,” said someone from the old gang. “That has to make Junior uneasy. With Bob, the door is opened again to 41 and Baker and Brent.”

W. had no choice but to make an Oedipal U-turn. He couldn’t let Nancy Pelosi subpoena the cranky Rummy for hearings on Iraq. “He’s not exactly Mr. Charming or Mr. Truthful, and he’d be on TV saying something stupid,” said a Bush 41 official. “Bob can just go up to the Hill and say: ‘I don’t know. I wasn’t there when that happened.’ ”

Bob Gates, his friends say, had been worried about the belligerent, arrogant, ideological style of Rummy & Cheney from the start. He fretted at the way W.’s so-called foreign policy “dream team” — including his old staffer and fellow Soviet expert Condi — made it up as they went along, even though that had been their complaint about the Clinton foreign policy team. A realpolitik advocate like his mentor, General Scowcroft, he was critical of a linear, moralizing style that disdained nuance, demoted diplomacy and inflated villains. In 2004, he publicly questioned the administration’s approach to Iran.

While Vice went off to a corner to lick his wounds, W. was forced to do his best imitation of his dad yesterday, talking about “bipartisan outreach,” “people have spoken,” blah-blah-blah — after he’d been out on the trail saying that electing Democrats would mean that “the terrorists win and America loses.”

“I share a large part of the responsibility” for the “thumpin’ ” of Republicans, he told reporters. Actually, he gets full responsibility.

W. has stopped talking about democracy as a standard of success in Iraq; yesterday, he said that Iraq had to “govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself.”

He was asked if his surprise at the election results showed he was out of touch with Americans. “I thought when it was all said and done,” he replied, “the American people would understand the importance of taxes and the importance of security.”

So it was just that the American people were too dumb to understand? W. also managed to bash Vietnam vets, saying that this war isn’t similar because there’s a volunteer army, so “the troops understand the consequences of Iraq in the global war on terror.” Is that why W. stayed out of Vietnam? Because he understood it?

An ashen Rummy was also condescending during his uncomfortable tableau with W. and Bob Gates in the Oval Office, implying that he was dumped because Americans just didn’t “comprehend” what was going on in Iraq. Actually, Rummy, we get it. You don’t get it.

“Baker’s no fool,” a Bush 41 official said. “He wasn’t going to go out there with a plan for Iraq and have Rummy shoot it down. He wanted a receptive audience. Everyone had to be on the same page before the plan is unveiled.”

They don’t call him the Velvet Hammer for nothing. R.I.P., Rummy.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006




Monday, November 06, 2006

Limiting the Damage


President Bush isn’t on the ballot tomorrow. But this election is, nonetheless, all about him. The question is whether voters will pry his fingers loose from at least some of the levers of power, thereby limiting the damage he can inflict in his two remaining years in office.

There are still some people urging Mr. Bush to change course. For example, a scathing editorial published today by The Military Times, which calls on Mr. Bush to fire Donald Rumsfeld, declares that “this is not about the midterm elections.” But the editorial’s authors surely know better than that. Mr. Bush won’t fire Mr. Rumsfeld; he won’t change strategy in Iraq; he won’t change course at all, unless Congress forces him to.

At this point, nobody should have any illusions about Mr. Bush’s character. To put it bluntly, he’s an insecure bully who believes that owning up to a mistake, any mistake, would undermine his manhood — and who therefore lives in a dream world in which all of his policies are succeeding and all of his officials are doing a heckuva job. Just last week he declared himself “pleased with the progress we’re making” in Iraq.

In other words, he’s the sort of man who should never have been put in a position of authority, let alone been given the kind of unquestioned power, free from normal checks and balances, that he was granted after 9/11. But he was, alas, given that power, as well as a prolonged free ride from much of the news media.

The results have been predictably disastrous. The nightmare in Iraq is only part of the story. In time, the degradation of the federal government by rampant cronyism — almost every part of the executive branch I know anything about, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has been FEMAfied — may come to be seen as an equally serious blow to America’s future.

And it should be a matter of intense national shame that Mr. Bush has quietly abandoned his fine promises to New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast.

The public, which rallied around Mr. Bush after 9/11 and was still prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt two years ago, seems to have figured most of this out. It’s too late to vote Mr. Bush out of office, but most Americans seem prepared to punish Mr. Bush’s party for his personal failings. This is in spite of a vicious campaign in which Mr. Bush has gone further than any previous president — even Richard Nixon — in attacking the patriotism of anyone who criticizes him or his policies.

That said, it’s still possible that the Republicans will hold on to both houses of Congress. The feeding frenzy over John Kerry’s botched joke showed that many people in the news media are still willing to be played like a fiddle. And if you think the timing of the Saddam verdict was coincidental, I’ve got a terrorist plot against the Brooklyn Bridge to sell you.

Moreover, the potential for vote suppression and/or outright electoral fraud remains substantial. And it will be very hard for the Democrats to take the Senate for the very simple reason that only one-third of Senate seats are on this ballot.

What if the Democrats do win? That doesn’t guarantee a change in policy.

The Constitution says that Congress and the White House are co-equal branches of government, but Mr. Bush and his people aren’t big on constitutional niceties. Even with a docile Republican majority controlling Congress, Mr. Bush has been in the habit of declaring that he has the right to disobey the law he has just signed, whether it’s a law prohibiting torture or a law requiring that he hire qualified people to run FEMA.

Just imagine, then, what he’ll do if faced with demands for information from, say, Congressional Democrats investigating war profiteering, which seems to have been rampant. Actually, we don’t have to imagine: a White House strategist has already told Time magazine that the administration plans a “cataclysmic fight to the death” if Democrats in Congress try to exercise their right to issue subpoenas — which is one heck of a metaphor, given Mr. Bush’s history of getting American service members trapped in cataclysmic fights where the deaths are anything but metaphors.

But here’s the thing: no matter how hard the Bush administration may try to ignore the constitutional division of power, Mr. Bush’s ability to make deadly mistakes has rested in part on G.O.P. control of Congress. That’s why many Americans, myself included, will breathe a lot easier if one-party rule ends tomorrow.

Shouting Over the Din


We know that Al Gore got more votes than George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election, and that of the people who went to the polls in Florida, more had intended to vote for Mr. Gore than for Mr. Bush. But Mr. Bush became president.

In 2004, Mr. Bush outpolled John Kerry by more than three million votes nationally. But widespread problems encountered by voters in Ohio, especially those who had intended to vote for Mr. Kerry, raised doubts about who had really won the crucially important Buckeye State. If Mr. Kerry had taken Ohio, he would have won the White House with a minority of the popular vote, as Mr. Bush had done four years earlier.

These are not scenes from a flourishing democracy. If you’re looking to put a positive spin on the current state of politics and government in the U.S., you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Voters will head to the polls tomorrow for the most important off-year election in recent memory. But instead of a concerted effort to make it easier for Americans to vote, the trend in recent years has been to make it harder, through legal means and otherwise.

Tens of thousands of voters in Georgia will very likely be confused tomorrow. A judge struck down a state law requiring voters to show a photo ID before casting their ballots. But up to 300,000 voters have received letters from the State Board of Elections telling them that a photo ID is required.

A veteran Democratic congresswoman from Indianapolis, Julia Carson, ran into trouble when she tried to vote on primary day by displaying her Congressional identification card. It had her picture on it, but she was told that was not enough. She needed something issued by the state or federal government that had an expiration date on it.

Eventually, as The Washington Post tells us, she was allowed to vote after a poll worker called a boss.

This was a congresswoman!

With each new election comes a new round of voter horror stories: Hanging chads. Eight- and nine-hour waits in the rain. Votes lost. Votes never counted. Electronic voting machines, vulnerable to all types of mischief, proliferating without the protective shadow of a paper trail. People in poor neighborhoods shunning the voting booth because they’ve been led to believe they’ll be arrested for some minor violation, such as an unpaid traffic ticket, if they dare to show up at the polls.

Enough. We need to recognize reality. The aging system of American-style democracy is beset in too many places by dry rot, cynicism, chicanery and fraud. It’s due for an overhaul.

The gerrymandering geniuses have raised their antidemocratic notion of perpetual incumbency to a fine art. As Adam Nagourney and Robin Toner informed us in yesterday’s Times, it’s very difficult to transform even intense voter dissatisfaction into real political change. “For all the deep unhappiness that polls show with Congress, Mr. Bush, his party and the Iraq war,” they wrote, “only about 10 percent of House races could be considered even remotely competitive.”

I’ve already said that I favor the creation of some sort of nonpartisan national forum — perhaps a series of high-profile, televised town hall meetings — to explore ways of improving our deeply troubled system of politics and government. If we could get beyond the hellacious din of obnoxious television ads and mindless shouting heads, we’d find that there are a lot of people with good ideas out there who need to be heard from.

One of the biggest problems at the moment is the extent to which ordinary Americans feel estranged from the ruling elite, from those powerful (and invariably wealthy) men and women in both parties who actually influence the course of politics and government.

The key task of any national effort to revitalize American-style democracy would be to bring the citizenry into closer touch with elected leaders in ways that hold the leaders to greater account and make them more responsive. The absolutely essential first step would be to ensure that all who are eligible to vote are actually allowed to vote, and that their ballots are properly counted.

I don’t think the politicians, even with all the recent coverage, realize the level of dissatisfaction and outright anger that has gripped much of the population. Iraq may be the flash point, but the dissatisfaction runs much deeper than that. People feel that the U.S. has sailed off in the wrong direction, and that — as voters — they haven’t the clout to set things right.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Difference Two Years Made

New York Times Editorial November 5, 2006

On Tuesday, when this page runs the list of people it has endorsed for election, we will include no Republican Congressional candidates for the first time in our memory. Although Times editorials tend to agree with Democrats on national policy, we have proudly and consistently endorsed a long line of moderate Republicans, particularly for the House. Our only political loyalty is to making the two-party system as vital and responsible as possible.

That is why things are different this year.

To begin with, the Republican majority that has run the House — and for the most part, the Senate — during President Bush’s tenure has done a terrible job on the basics. Its tax-cutting-above-all-else has wrecked the budget, hobbled the middle class and endangered the long-term economy. It has refused to face up to global warming and done pathetically little about the country’s dependence on foreign oil.

Republican leaders, particularly in the House, have developed toxic symptoms of an overconfident majority that has been too long in power. They methodically shut the opposition — and even the more moderate members of their own party — out of any role in the legislative process. Their only mission seems to be self-perpetuation.

The current Republican majority managed to achieve that burned-out, brain-dead status in record time, and with a shocking disregard for the most minimal ethical standards. It was bad enough that a party that used to believe in fiscal austerity blew billions on pork-barrel projects. It is worse that many of the most expensive boondoggles were not even directed at their constituents, but at lobbyists who financed their campaigns and high-end lifestyles.

That was already the situation in 2004, and even then this page endorsed Republicans who had shown a high commitment to ethics reform and a willingness to buck their party on important issues like the environment, civil liberties and women’s rights.

For us, the breaking point came over the Republicans’ attempt to undermine the fundamental checks and balances that have safeguarded American democracy since its inception. The fact that the White House, House and Senate are all controlled by one party is not a threat to the balance of powers, as long as everyone understands the roles assigned to each by the Constitution. But over the past two years, the White House has made it clear that it claims sweeping powers that go well beyond any acceptable limits. Rather than doing their duty to curb these excesses, the Congressional Republicans have dedicated themselves to removing restraints on the president’s ability to do whatever he wants. To paraphrase Tom DeLay, the Republicans feel you don’t need to have oversight hearings if your party is in control of everything.

An administration convinced of its own perpetual rightness and a partisan Congress determined to deflect all criticism of the chief executive has been the recipe for what we live with today.

Congress, in particular the House, has failed to ask probing questions about the war in Iraq or hold the president accountable for his catastrophic bungling of the occupation. It also has allowed Mr. Bush to avoid answering any questions about whether his administration cooked the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. Then, it quietly agreed to close down the one agency that has been riding herd on crooked and inept American contractors who have botched everything from construction work to the security of weapons.

After the revelations about the abuse, torture and illegal detentions in Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay, Congress shielded the Pentagon from any responsibility for the atrocities its policies allowed to happen. On the eve of the election, and without even a pretense at debate in the House, Congress granted the White House permission to hold hundreds of noncitizens in jail forever, without due process, even though many of them were clearly sent there in error.

In the Senate, the path for this bill was cleared by a handful of Republicans who used their personal prestige and reputation for moderation to paper over the fact that the bill violates the Constitution in fundamental ways. Having acquiesced in the president’s campaign to dilute their own authority, lawmakers used this bill to further Mr. Bush’s goal of stripping the powers of the only remaining independent branch, the judiciary.

This election is indeed about George W. Bush — and the Congressional majority’s insistence on protecting him from the consequences of his mistakes and misdeeds. Mr. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 and proceeded to govern as if he had an enormous mandate. After he actually beat his opponent in 2004, he announced he now had real political capital and intended to spend it. We have seen the results. It is frightening to contemplate the new excesses he could concoct if he woke up next Wednesday and found that his party had maintained its hold on the House and Senate.

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