John Kerry wrote to me last month. “Dear James Hightower,” the letter began (OK, it wasn’t that personal of a letter. I would’ve preferred “Dear Jim” or “Hey Jimbo”, or “Yo Hightower”but, then, as we know, Kerry’s not that loose of a guy. He is what he is.)
“We’re going for it!” was the opening exclamation of John’s letter, and I thought, well, gee, I would hope so, since you’re going to be the Democratic nominee and all. Then he added: “People all across the country are lining up to support our campaign, committing their time, energy, and financial support to help end the Bush presidency…As a party, we’re more united than we have ever been.”
Now he’s absolutely right about that. In my years in the political vineyards, I’ve never seen such unity, energy, and determination behind an effort to bring regime change to the Homeland. Everywhere I’ve been lately—from cities like Houston and St. Louis to places like Wausau, Wisconsin, and Ithaca, New York—big crowds are turning out, people are rallying and organizing, and there’s a level of activity you normally don’t see until the last month of the election (if at all). There’s a sense of urgency to this effort, most commonly expressed in such words as these: “We simply have got to get these fools out of the White House—they’re ruining our country.”
The spreading “Re-defeat Bush” movement even extends beyond our borders to Americans living overseas. I was recently in France on a speaking tour and got to know a wonderful and wildly enthusiastic group of Democrats who live there, but are still politically connected and vote here. They’re organizing under the proud flag of “Democrats Abroad” (which has affiliates in 60 countries and, as a group, will send nine delegates to the Democratic convention in Boston). In France, they had expected about 100 activists to attend their Democratic caucus meeting this spring, but more than 700 showed up. You would expect these to be mostly professors or college students doing a semester or so abroad, but the group was far more diverse than that, particularly including a large percentage of people working for U.S. companies and banks. Many of these corporate employees were appalled at Bush’s policies at home—ranging from defoliating our environmental protections to assaulting our Bill of Rights—but they unanimously bemoaned the extensive damage that the Bushites’ “Bully America” approach to the world is doing to international business relationships and to the larger image of America as a trusted beacon of peace, justice, and global sanity. The work of Democrats Abroad is a sign of our times. Just as I find people all across our country doing an uncommon amount of political organizing these days, so are these expatriates reaching out aggressively and enthusiastically to get thousands of foreign-based American citizens registered and voting to send W. back to Crawford, so he can devote himself full-time to brush-clearing on that ranchette of his. Because of the energy of Democrats Abroad (and also because Bush has alienated so many soldiers and military families serving abroad), there’s a chance that the foreignbased vote in this election could go against the Republicans for the first time in many years.
An interesting political development is rolling across our land. The Bushites are being unveiled as a gaggle of clueless ideological extremists who are inept at running a government. The BushCheney- RumsfeldRove & Company’s political ace in the hole has been their carefully projected image of being Ayn Rand-style strongmen, with the moral superiority and corporate know-how to, by God, do what needs to be done.
Remember when they first strutted into power, full of their own cockadoodle-doo? They announced that at last, after eight years of the Clinton adolescence, “the adults are in charge.”
For example, consider what they tout as their greatest strength: war. September 11th gave Cheney, Rumsfeld, Paul “Howling” Wolfowitz, and Bush’s other neocon Vulcans the red-white-and-blue cover they needed to haul out their closetful of war toys and foreign-policy theories, fantasies, myths, whimsies, phantasms, and fairy tales. They created a macho image of being bigger-than-life power players. Even little George took to declaring over and over again, “I am a war president,” squinting his beady eyes and flaring his tail feathers as widely as possible.
For a while, it worked. Using the blank check that a cowed Congress wrote to him and deploying the full might of America’s military machine, W. quickly became the conqueror of Afghanistan, then Iraq. Despite millions of us who saw through their fratboy muscle-flexing, these posturing Caesars were lionized by a curiously unskeptical media, and George’s poll numbers soared.
This year, though, the curtain has been pulled back, and the public has gotten a squint at the little men behind it. First came explosive insider books by Paul O’Neill, Richard Clarke and Bob Woodward confirming that Cheney, Rummy, and George himself were hell-bent from the moment they took over the Oval Office to go get their personal bugaboo, Saddam Hussein—regardless of facts, reason, right, or consequences. In other words, their deadly Iraq attack was not a war of necessity, but of neocon political dogma and unbridled hubris.
And while the overthrow of a militarily feeble and personally delusional Saddam was quickly handled by our able troops, it just as quickly became clear that the neocons, with their fuzzy theory of easily occupying and democratizing a grateful Iraqi people, were no less delusional than Saddam. The vainglorious vanquishers —Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld— now stand revealed as possessing all the competence of Curly, Larry and Moe, and America has paid a terrible price for their bungling:
• 832 gallant Americans dead (so far) — most of them killed after Saddam was toppled and George W. so embarrassingly declared “Mission Accomplished.”
• More than 4,000 Americans horribly wounded (arms and legs blasted off, spinal cords severed, eyes gouged out, brains damaged, bodies burned, relentless pain, etc.), yet the Bushites try to hide these soldiers’ sacrifices by refusing to release the ever-rising numbers and quickly tucking the wounded inside military hospitals kept strictly offlimits to reporters.
• Untold thousands of innocent Iraqis dead and wounded since Saddam’s ouster, with a majority of ordinary citizens there now loathing our flag and decrying Bush as a war criminal, including thousands who furiously attack our soldiers and angrily mock the new Bushimposed ruling council (headed by a wealthy Iraqi exile who for years was a paid CIA operative—how tone-deaf is that?).
• The global sliming of America’s good name by the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib prison (and elsewhere), made worse by the buck-passing Bushites’ cowardly attempt to pin the blame and punishment on a half-dozen grunts, even though George’s own White House counsel had provided memos to him claiming that the Geneva Conventions’ ban on prison torture didn’t apply to the Bushites—so, hey, turn loose the hounds of hell.
• Demoralized troops who no longer can believe their leaders, yet literally have been conscripted by the supposedly conservative Bushites to stay on the front lines months beyond their legal tour of duty. This doesn’t include the price we’re paying in the frightening form of rising terrorist threats to our country, as infuriated Third World Muslim youth are newly recruited to Osama bin Laden’s sick cause, courtesy of Bush’s neocon conceit and incompetence in Iraq. Nor need we dwell here on the cost at home to our own cherished liberties, to our public treasury ($120 billion that Bush admits to spending so far in Iraq), and in the spreading cynicism and disgust that young people feel toward the political process that has created all of this.
To grasp the blindness of the neocons’ zealotry, meet their main man in Iraq, Ahmad Chalabi. A vile, corrupt, power-thirsty Iraqi exile with absolutely zero credibility among the people of his former nation, Chalabi was inexplicably the choice of the neocons to be autocratically installed as Iraq’s head honcho after Saddam’s ouster. Previously convicted of massive bank fraud in Jordan, this obvious hustler should never have gotten his foot in the White House door, much less gotten $40 million of our tax dollars funneled into his political front group by the Pentagon.
But the Bushites were so besotted by their own ideological vapors, and Chalabi was so fond of whispering the sweet nothings of “intelligence” that they desperately wanted to hear (Saddam has weapons of mass destruction scattered everywhere, he’s tight with Osama and Al Qaeda, democracy-hungry Iraqis will shower American troops with roses and love, etc), that he became their darling. Wolfowitz was his chief sponsor, Rummy and Cheney brought him into the highest levels of their Iraq strategy discussions, and Karl Rove even gave him a seat of honor at Bush’s State of the Union address this January, positioning him right behind Laura Bush in the family gallery so he could be publicly hailed by the president. He was “their guy.”
Wrong. Now it appears that Chalabi and his Pentagon-funded group were duping the comically gullible Bushites, doing doubleagent dirty work for the extremist ayatollahs who rule neighboring Iran as a Shiite Muslim theocracy. These repressive clerics (who, ironically, are listed at the top of George’s own list of evildoers to be extinguished) have long hated Saddam and wanted him booted. They believed that this would lead to an uprising of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority (70 percent of the population there) that was being so brutally oppressed by Saddam, which in turn would lead to a new Shiite theocracy in Iraq that would be aligned with the Iranian ayatollahs—while also, by the way, gaining control of Iraq’s enormous oil reserves.
Iran had a plan. It did not, however, have the muscle to depose Saddam on its own. But out of the blue, here came George. He had no plan, but he had lots of muscle. He was rattling his mighty sword at the Beast of Baghdad, looking for an excuse to destroy the man “who tried to kill my daddy.” And to the delight of the ayatollahs, riding shotgun with George was none other than their old pal Ahmad, with whom they’ve had long and cozy links. Not only does Chalabi’s group keep an office in Iran and work closely with the ayatollahs, but his top security aide is an Iranian who previously was an officer in Iran’s intelligence force.
While Chalabi’s coziness with Iran’s “bad guys” has been known and protested by CIA and State Department officials for a long time, Bush’s macho smart guys would hear no evil about their pet Iraqi (indeed, Middle East experts in the government who criticized Chalabi were frequently transferred or frozen out of policy-making on Iraq by top Bushites). Now, however, Chalabi’s game appears to be up, for our on-the-ground military forces have raided his Iraqi compound and seized documents said to show that his group has been a valuable spy pipeline for the Iranians leading directly to the very top of Bush’s war machine.
Still in denial, various neocon apologists for Chalabi (including such disgraced warmongers as Richard Perle and—!—Newt Gingrich) are claiming that he’s the victim of a smear campaign by the CIA, but neither Bush, Cheney, nor Rumsfeld mention their buddy anymore, so I’d say he’s toast. Among Chalabi’s other problems, his security chief is accused of passing topsecret American military information to the Iranians—info so sensitive that it put U.S. soldiers’ lives at risk. His group is also said to have delivered totally bogus intelligence, concocted by the Iranians, about Saddam’s military capabilities to Rummy, Cheney, and ultimately to Bush—information the Bushites eagerly swallowed whole, jacking up their testosterone level and further inciting them to attack Iraq.
As we know, the attack went fine, but Bush and his ivory-tower neocons proved themselves to be completely ignorant about the political, religious, ethnic, and cultural realities our troops would then face, so the occupation has been a debacle. The most likely result of their nation-building adventure is that their “New Iraq” will not be the shining model of democracy they so cockily promised, but a Shiite theocracy (as some regions, such as Najaf, have already become).
He will have fought the ayatollah’s war for them. Or, more precisely, our grunts will have fought his war to make Iraq safe for Iran. These are the kinds of grotesque, unintended consequences that bite a nation on its butt when blind ideology is allowed to drive policy.
Bush is tanking. More and more Americans are seeing that he and his “wizards” are inept, vain, buckpassing elitists who don’t know what they are doing. In the latest CBS poll, only 41 percent approve of the job he’s doing, the lowest ratings of his presidency. Sixty-one percent disapprove of how Bush is handling Iraq. (In a separate Texas poll, 68 percent disapprove!) Only 36 percent of Americans approve of his handling of the economy. Especially significant as a measure of his political troubles, 65 percent say the country is on the wrong track—the highest negative numbers ever recorded in the 20 years CBS pollsters have asked this question. And all of this after Bush’s campaign spent $71 million for a blitz of ads to bolster his image.
Bush has peaked
These are ugly numbers for an incumbent. Worse yet for him, he has to know that he has peaked as a GOP vote-getter. In 2000, Bush got every vote he’s ever going to get. He had everything going for him that year—a tightly unified party, a weak Democratic contender, a severely divided progressive community, a “compassionate conservative” shtick to appeal to moderate voters’ “Clinton fatigue,” a fresh image (compared to Gore’s), and an enraptured media—yet still he lost by 500,000 popular votes! Since then, he has done nothing but lose votes—including those of many Republican environmentalists and social moderates, constitutional conservatives and small-government budget-balancers, military families who feel used and abused, hightechers whose well-paying jobs have suddenly disappeared offshore, and independents who are stunned by the raw corporatism, autocracy, and mingy lack of compassion that define the Bush agenda.
There’s no question that George can lose this election, perhaps by a landslide. But … can Kerry win it?
Despite the “Let’s go for it!” battle cry on the envelope of the letter that I (and a few hundred thousand others) received from Kerry, it seems he’s actually accepting the defensive, don’t-rock-the-boat, hide-and-watch, coast-to-victory, corporate-approved Republican-lite strategy urged by his consultants and money boys. “Let’s wait for it!” is the essence of their appeal. A real rouser, that.
I’m not asking for flaming populism from a buttoned-down multimillion- dollar Bostonian — just a little flicker of Democratic spark to ignite the massive populist fervor that’s readily available to him. Example: He’s letting George W. slip-slide away from the Republicans’ greatest vulnerability—the gutting of America’s middle class.
Bush and the media have giddily hailed recent job-creation statistics as “proof” that the GOP’s unrelenting tax cuts for the rich are also a boon to working stiffs. About 300,000 new jobs were created in both April and May, exulted our cheerleader-in-chief — so see, my policies are putting people to work!
A suckered Kerry played the game on George’s turf, responding that 600,000 jobs still don’t make up for the 2.6 million lost on Bush’s watch: There are still too many Americans left out, he dourly intoned. But it looks like job-creation numbers will continue to rise for a while, so that’s a dead-end argument—and it misses the point that every working stiff knows personally: The issue isn’t jobs, it’s wages.
Practically every one of Bush’s jobs is a low-wage, no-benefit, Wal-Martish jobette. Real wages in Bushworld average below what they were when Nixon was president.
What’s bothering ordinary folks today is that there are no middle-class jobs for them—jobs paying enough that they might buy a house, send their kids to college, have health insurance for their families, and look forward to a secure retirement. That’s not radical… it’s Roosevelt!
But Bush’s doctrinaire economic agenda is to return America to a pre- Roosevelt, laissez-faire, robber-baron era. He’s actively dismantling the legal framework that for nearly half a century has assured a middle-class possibility for our country’s majority of working families. These folks see this theft and are seething—it’s the great issue of our time and a stunning political opportunity.
So where’s Kerry? Why do these folks not see the Democratic nominee standing proudly and loudly for them, offering an unequivocal agenda to rally them in a national effort to rebuild America’s historic middle class? Here’s the question: If he won’t stand for them, why should he expect that they’ll stand with him?
Instead, we’re getting CoporateKerry. Far from assuring the workaday majority that he’s on their side, he’s bending over backwards to reassure the corporate elite. “I am not a redistributionist Democrat. Fear not,” he told a group of fat-cat donors in April. To further comfort the privileged, Kerry has surrounded himself with a clique of top economic advisors drawn almost exclusively from Wall Street. Such peers of the establishment as Robert Rubin and Roger Altman have taken the lead economic-policy roles in his campaign. These are two multimillionaire investment bankers and former Clinton officials best known for convincing Bill to push NAFTA on us and to abandon his campaign promise of increasing the minimum wage. What are working stiffs to make of these guys?
Yes, the autocratic, plutocratic, anti-democratic Bush and his imperialistic regime of extremist reactionaries can (and, I think, will) be defeated November 2. But it would help if the Democratic candidate would do some of the heavy lifting.
This is why Arianna Huffington and Joe Trippi (Howard Dean’s former campaign manager and Internet guru) have launched a massive petition drive calling on Kerry to goose up his energy, stand forthrightly as a Democrat, and offer a big vision that asks people to do more for America than “go shopping,” as Bush so pathetically proposed. “Instead of adopting the familiar—and failed—Republican-lite swing voter strategy,” says the petition, “you can reach out and inspire the 50 percent of eligible voters who have given up on voting. If you do, you will not win in a toss-up, but a landslide.” More than 300,000 people have zapped this message of encouragement to Kerry, and you can do the same at www.fanaticsandfools.org/petition.
As we saw in this year’s Democratic primaries, Kerry does respond to progressives when pushed. Getting out of the comfy cocoon of the Senate and having to meet in the cafes, barber shops, and kitchens of real folks in Iowa, New Hampshire, and elsewhere did open his eyes to some middle-class realities. Because of this, and because of strategically applied pressure by such other candidates as Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, he became more progressive—even more passionate! —on everything from global trade scams to the USA Patriot Act.
So it’s worth our effort to try to lure him back to the real world, away from the cold clutches of selfserving campaign consultants and the corporate weasels of the Democratic Leadership Council.
Even in the Kerry form letter I received, there are glimpses of progressive possibilities. For example, he castigates Bush for using the power of the White House to serve the wealthy and the corporate powers; then he declares, “You and I will use that power to take on the pharmaceutical companies, the oil industry, the HMOs and other special interests that are standing in the way of progress, fairness, and economic justice.”
That’s the Kerry we want to see and hear more of—now and in the White House. It’s up to us to push him, just as FDR had to be pushed in 1932 and beyond. You know that the corporate forces will be pushing as hard as they can in the other direction. The question is this: Will we just criticize and walk away, ceding all influence, or will we do the tough (and often frustrating) work of democracy by pushing back with all of our grassroots might, demanding that he be our president, and getting the most that we can from him?
A two-step program
Step 1 is George & gang. They have shown themselves to be a clear and present danger to the America that we believe in and want to foster—a nation of egalitarian ideals based on the founding principles of liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all. Bush’s policies are contrary to those principles, as well as being flagrantly nutty and opposed by the great majority of the American people.
As a result, there is an intensity of opposition to him that I’ve rarely seen in politics—an intensity that the pollsters can’t measure. I spoke recently to 3,000 delegates of the building-trades unions of the AFLCIO. In a side discussion about whether Kerry is progressive enough or passionate enough, one fellow bluntly said: “I don’t care if he’s a sack of cement—we’re going to carry him to victory in November!”
I think they will. But let’s realize up front that defeating Bush is not a progressive victory. It would stop some of our most awful losses, but it does not deliver advances to us. An old country song says, “It felt so good when it stopped hurting.” Defeating Bush will stop the hurt, bringing our politics and policies back from the depths, giving us a renewed chance to fight for positive gains rather than constantly battling the deeply negative thrusts of the Bushites.
But in the long run, Step 2 is the most important: building our grassroots progressive movement. This is the crucial step we’ve failed to take in the past, relying on presidents or other elected politicos to “take care of us.” After defeating Bush the First in ’92, for example, nearly all progressive leaders cranked back in their La-Z-Boys and said: “Oh, we can rest now, ’cause our pal Bill is in there.” That didn’t work out very well.
On the one hand, we have to be all over Kerry from the get-go. No honeymoon—none. And no letting him buy us off with a few token appointments, a vague assurance that we can have “access” to the White House, or the offer of occasional rides on Air Force One. (Believe it or not, Clinton actually got away with this last one, effectively using it has a hush puppy to keep some socalled leaders of progressive groups from criticizing his frequent sellouts to corporate interests—criticize us, the Clintonites said, and you won’t get to ride on the plane. Sheesh!)
Howard Dean’s new organization, Democracy for America, is moving in this direction, and others are also strategizing about how to do it, including Jeff Cohen (founder of FAIR) and the folks at TrueMajority. org and MoveOn.org.
On the other hand, we need to focus beyond Kerry. This means redoubling our efforts outside of Washington, investing more of our organizational energy, money, staffs, and other resources into connecting up the burgeoning power of grassroots groups. This is our future, for this is where our real power lies.
The good news is that the components of a real progressive movement already exist all across the country— successful local groups, effective voices, independent media, etc. But they’re not linked into any whole, so we don’t function as a true movement. That’s our most important challenge. We have to build the framework of strategizers, organizers, trainers, messengers, recruiters, funders, candidates, and other essentials to connect our various parts into a movement that can elect—then sustain—true progressives to city councils, state legislatures, governorships, Congress…and ultimately to the presidency.
Kerry can’t be our goal—only our start.