The Commons is a weblog for concerned citizens of southeast Iowa and their friends around the world. It was created to encourage grassroots networking and to share information and ideas which have either been suppressed or drowned out in the mainstream media.

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection." (Henry V, Act V, Scene 4)

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Deliver Us from Wal-Mart? - Christianity Today Magazine

Deliver Us from Wal-Mart? - Christianity Today Magazine
"Deliver Us from Wal-Mart?
Christians are among those sounding the alarm about the ethics of this retail giant. Are the worries justified?
by Jeff M. Sellers | posted 04/22/2005 09:30 a.m.

The cavernous hallway outside Chicago City Council chambers is echoing with the sound of 150 people chanting, "We're fed up, we won't take it no mo'!"

The lady with the megaphone is leading a mix of union workers and community reform activists shouting slogans against the world's largest retailer. One of the protesters, Ella Hereth of the advocacy group Jobs with Justice, tells CT that Wal-Mart is the "poster boy for corporate exploitation."

She ticks off the complaints: low pay, scant benefits, race and sex discrimination, and profiting from mistreated workers in foreign "sweatshops." Before the Chicago City Council votes to block one store but allow another, aldermen label Wal-Mart "the worst company in America" and an "evildoer."

As it has grown into a powerhouse with sales of $256.3 billion—more than the sales of Microsoft and retail competitors Home Depot, Kroger, Target, and Costco combined—Wal-Mart has become a lightning rod nationwide in local tempests of moral outrage. Church leaders (primarily mainline, liberal, and Roman Catholic) have joined grassroots activists fearful that mindless global market factors will steamroll human dignity.

"Wal-Mart's practices are immoral and unfair," says Reginald Williams Jr., associate pastor for justice ministries at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Pastors at the 8,500-member Trinity United and eight other African American congregations in Chicago called for a boycott of Wal-Mart.

Such anger perplexes other Christians who think of Wal-Mart as a family-friendly place and a company founded on the biblical values of respect, service, and sacrifice. Founder Sam Walton's autobiography indicates he taught Sunday school in his church, prayed with his children, and had a strong sense of calling to better people's lives. With the Protestant values of respect for the individual, thrift, and hard work, Walton was eager to improve customers' living standards through low prices.

"Is Wal-Mart a Christian company? No," said former Wal-Mart executive Don Soderquist at a recent prayer breakfast. "But the basis of our decisions was the values of Scripture."

Indeed, based in the Bible Belt town of Bentonville, Arkansas, Wal-Mart has a tradition of tailoring its service to churchgoing customers. It sells only the sanitized versions of hip-hop cds bearing warnings of objectionable content. Responding to a campaign by the largest evangelical mutual fund group, The Timothy Plan, to keep Cosmopolitan magazine covers out of view of Wal-Mart customers, the company slapped plastic sheathes over suggestive women's periodicals and banned "lad mags" such as Maxim.

Wal-Mart knows its churchgoing, Middle America market. When Target Corp., a top competitor, refused to allow Salvation Army bell-ringers in front of its stores last Christmas, Bentonville seized the public-relations moment. Wal-Mart pledged to match the amount that Salvation Army bell-ringers collected at its stores.

In addition, according to Forbes magazine, Wal-Mart has become the largest retailer of Christian-themed merchandise, with well over $1 billion in sales of such items as VeggieTales videos and The Purpose-Driven Life books.

Some Christians may be thankful for the values behind the Wal-Mart phenomenon, but others are voicing some of the unprecedented hostility toward the company. A biblical look at the retailer's labor issues may help Christians, among the one-third of Americans who visit Wal-Mart at least once a week, to discern whether they honor God in purchases and investments in the company.

Wages of Sin?
A common charge against Wal-Mart is that it doesn't pay a "livable wage."

Wal-Mart officials say the company's full-time hourly workers average $9.68 an hour, with a new, inexperienced worker beginning at $7 to $8 per hour. Wal-Mart's average hourly wage produces an annual income of $20,134.40, which is slightly more than the federal poverty level for a family of four ($19,350). Given that many "full-time" Wal-Mart employees work 34-hour weeks, though, the resulting average annual income of $17,114.24 falls well short of that standard for a family of four.

Are Wal-Mart wages sinfully low? Especially in the 19th century, Protestant and Catholic leaders made the theological case for livable worker wages. The industrial economy of the era was a human-rights disaster, prompting Calvinist theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper to follow Pope Leo XIII's example and help spark Christian labor union movements.

In the 1891 Rerum Novarum, Leo XIII argued that just wages should be determined not by the market but by that which is required to sustain family life. Pope John Paul II echoed that position in his 1991 Centesimus Annus. As Kuyper put it, "God has not willed that one should drudge hard and yet have no bread for himself and his family."

But does this mean that all jobs (flipping burgers, stocking shelves, etc.) should pay enough to support a family of four? Not necessarily. Theologians emerging in modern economies tend to emphasize merit as the primary grounds for pay, more amenable to market realities. In Biblical Principles and Business: The Foundations, Francis A. Schaeffer disciple Udo Middelmann notes that scriptural emphases on personal effort, contribution, and merit model the primary biblical bases for just pay.

Middelmann complains that "a world where choices do not have effects, and where different intellectual and material contributions lead to equal distribution of resulting wealth, is a world unknown to man."

That is, God creates all humanity equal, and we strive to provide equal opportunity to all, but Scripture does not command equal outcomes. Though Methodist theologian J. Philip Wogaman believes that human need should ultimately determine income, he says in Economics and Ethics: A Christian Inquiry (Fortress Press, 1986) that "in some respects this is a naïve doctrine, since it does not face up to the problem of how an employer could pay different workers different wages for the same kind of work."

Economist Thomas Sowell has shown that wages artificially elevated by government or unions lead to unemployment—to survive, employers simply make do with fewer workers. And theologians from liberal-leaning Miroslav Volf to the conservative Michael Novak agree that unemployment is among the gravest affronts to human dignity.

The devastating spiritual effect of unemployment is one reason the authors of Christian Ethics in the Workplace (Concordia Publishing House, 2001) argue that business owners have a moral responsibility to control expenses and to succeed. Raymond L. Hilgert, Philip H. Lochhaas, and James L. Truesdell (business professor, Lutheran minister, and businessman, respectively) add, however, that Christian ethics require employers to consider:

* whether employees have options to work elsewhere (a "semblance of equal bargaining power");

* whether the wage is significantly below the market for similar jobs of similar skills;

* whether the employer regards workers as human beings or as tools;

* whether the employer offers the employee a sense of partnership in the enterprise;

* whether the employer is treating the worker according to the Golden Rule.

Historically, service jobs have not been the basis for making a living. Fully two-thirds of Wal-Mart employees, according to the company, are senior citizens, college students, or second-income providers unlikely to rely on these jobs as their only means of sustenance.

Critics say Wal-Mart is so dominant that it drives down retail wages everywhere, but service sector jobs paid low wages long before the retailer's ascent. "Front-line service sector employees have never made livable wages," says Jim Hoopes, professor of business ethics at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, "or at least they have always been among the most poorly paid." Hoopes is quick to point out that such jobs form an increasing share of the U.S. economy. But that trend is much larger than Wal-Mart.

Cheating Your Associates
Low wages are one thing, unpaid overtime another. In Malachi 3:5 the Lord rebukes "those who defraud laborers of their wages," and those who have "failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields" are denounced in James 5.

A federal jury found in 2002 that Wal-Mart had forced employees in its Oregon stores to work overtime without pay. Two years later, a jury found 83 of these workers were entitled to back pay. Wal-Mart's Christi Gallagher says the Oregon verdict does not indicate widespread refusal to pay overtime, though lawsuits alleging just that are pending in at least 28 states.

"Since the plaintiffs recovered only 840 hours of the total alleged 72,000 hours," Gallagher says of the Oregon verdict, "these alleged practices are clearly not systematic, not widespread, and are highly individualized."

A class-action suit settled in 2000 accused Wal-Mart of cheating 69,000 Colorado employees of overtime pay. Wal-Mart reportedly paid $50 million to settle the case. Gallagher says that figure is "wildly inflated and inaccurate." She declined, however, to reveal the settlement amount.

A class-action suit in Massachusetts filed on behalf of 55,000 Wal-Mart employees, according to the Boston Herald, cites a computer expert alleging to have found 7,000 cases of Wal-Mart managers deleting large blocks of time from their employee payroll records. Wal-Mart officials deny the charges.

The Oregon lawsuit charged that some supervisors locked employees in after closing to force the overtime work. Wal-Mart's Gallagher declined to comment on this charge.

Wal-Mart policies forbid such "off-the-clock" practices. But David Batstone notes in Saving the Corporate Soul & (Who Knows?) Maybe Your Own (Jossey-Bass, 2003) that store managers come under such heavy pressure from Bentonville to avoid paying overtime that they see no option but to demand off-the-clock labor.

"A senior Wal-Mart payroll executive revealed under court deposition that every store has to send corporate headquarters a daily report noting whether the store had exceeded its payroll limit," Batstone writes. "Store managers who fail to minimize overtime pay can be reprimanded or fired."

Sticky Sweatshop Issues
The issue of "defrauding laborers" extends beyond U.S. borders. Shareholders and socially screened investment funds have long protested that the company relies on foreign factories routinely violating their countries' labor laws—"sweatshops" that employ underage workers, pay below minimum wage, or force employees to work beyond legal hours.

Sweatshop does not accurately describe many developing country factories, and activist shareholders avoid the term, especially since factory jobs are the lifeblood of the poor. Often the workers' only alternatives are unemployment or prostitution. Still, ever since Wal-Mart was embarrassed on the December 22, 1992, broadcast of Dateline NBC showing children as young as 9 years old making its private-label shirts at a factory in Saraka, Bangladesh, the issue has surfaced periodically.

Most recently, the National Labor Committee (NLC) reported in February 2004 that workers making plastic toys for Wal-Mart in Chang Ping township in Guangdong province, China, were paid less than the legal minimum and worked longer hours than local labor laws allowed. Employees worked for up to 20 hours a day, sometimes 7 days a week, for an average of 16.5 cents per hour; the legal minimum is 31 cents an hour.

Shareholders in Wal-Mart such as the United Methodist Church, whose pension fund invests in the company, have successfully pressured the company to set standards for such factories-Wal-Mart's "vendor code of conduct." Enforcing that code is another matter. The NLC reported that Chinese factory managers trained and paid workers to "correctly" answer questions they knew Wal-Mart inspectors would ask—and that inspectors played along, fully aware that the employees were lying about conditions.

Wal-Mart officials responded that the company has veteran inspectors who adhere to established standards, and that if such practices did occur they would violate its vendor code of conduct. Wal-Mart spokesman William Wertz declined to comment to CT about whether the company has investigated NLC concerns over the Chang Ping factory.

Vidette Bullock Mixon, director of corporate relations and social concern for the United Methodist Church's pension fund, has urged Wal-Mart for several years to better monitor conditions of its foreign suppliers. "I think they're finding some things, and the factories are agreeing that they will fix them," she says. "And it appears they're fixed for the moment, but then they go back to their habits of doing things that are not consistent with the code of conduct."

Shareholder and other groups have long pressured Wal-Mart to use independent inspectors to monitor its foreign factories. Charles Kernaghan of the NLC says only about half of the inspectors of Wal-Mart's suppliers in Guangdong province are independent—but they are for-profit auditors based in developed countries paid by the factories themselves.

Shareholder groups encourage Wal-Mart to use human-rights organizations or other nongovernmental organizations to monitor conditions. Nike, for example, relies not only on its own monitors but on inspectors from the Fair Labor Association.

Wal-Mart's policy is to work with managers of foreign factories violating its code of conduct, giving them a period of weeks to achieve compliance. If the supplier makes no progress, Wal-Mart withdraws its business. According to a report by the China-based worker-rights organization China Labor Watch, Wal-Mart has ended contracts with hundreds of Chinese suppliers because of excessive work hours. It also has blacklisted at least 72 factories for employing child labor.

Improving conditions in Chinese factories is especially urgent as the United States began phasing out quotas for Chinese textile imports in January, Kernaghan says. That is expected to lead to a dramatic increase in multinational companies relying on goods produced in China, where labor laws are essentially meaningless.

In the end, Kernaghan says "transparency"—disclosure of the locations of Wal-Mart's factories so journalists and others can verify company reports—is even more important than independent monitors. Most companies refuse to divulge the locations of foreign suppliers. Wal-Mart officials say they will not do so for competitive reasons. Kernaghan scoffs at this, saying competitors already know about each other's foreign suppliers, as several retailers often have their labels produced in the same factories.

Counting the Cost
Discerning Christians with varying social/theological priorities will differ on whether to open their wallets to Wal-Mart. Its impact on local communities and on the environment, as well its treatment of minorities and women, also must be examined. But even with this initial look at labor issues, what conclusions can we draw?

Because of Wal-Mart's low wages, critics accuse executives of "hoarding" wealth, the same charge leveled at unjust employers in James 5:3. But it would be hard to make this charge stick against Wal-Mart, whose gross profit margin (profit as a percentage of total revenues) of 22.5 percent equals the discount retail industry average. And Wal-Mart has long offered profit sharing and discounted stock purchase plans to employees.

Thus the savings from low wages and various cost-cutting innovations are not stockpiled for exorbitant profits or fat executive salaries. They are passed on to consumers in reduced prices (Walton's gospel). The Walton heirs occupying places four through eight on Forbes's list of richest people did not attain their fortunes from drawing salaries at Wal-Mart.

As for a livable wage, it's hard to show that markets, governments, or Christian ethics obligate businesses to pay shelf stockers enough to support a family of four. If this be evil, then it is the free market that is evil. Wal-Mart is merely the touchstone for the unwelcome macro-trend of low-paying service jobs replacing manufacturing work. As the ranks of the working poor swell, though, we do well to contemplate our complicity in the global drive toward offering—and getting—the lowest prices.

In the matter of unpaid overtime, many lawsuits are still pending and it is premature to make sweeping assertions. Still, the number of lawsuits in process suggests that Wal-Mart is struggling to follow its own policies against off-the-clock work.

Finally, the company shares responsibility with the foreign factories that supply it with dirt-cheap goods, especially since Wal-Mart routinely threatens to withdraw orders unless factories find cheaper ways to produce them. This too is a global practice involving many companies besides Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has taken steps to improve monitoring of such abuses and has distanced itself from violators, but activists would like to see greater efforts to bring factories into compliance rather than pulling orders—which can leave hundreds of poor workers unemployed.

Sam Walton, apart from his philanthropy, had a habit of ignoring matters that didn't contribute directly to the bottom line. Wal-Mart executives have begun to see that the old ways will no longer do. There are signs that Wal-Mart is beginning to listen to criticisms, but the one thing it hears above all else is the soft rustle of wallets opening—or, even louder, the absence of them from their stores.

Jeff M. Sellers is a CT associate editor.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
May 2005, Vol. 49, No. 5, Page 40"

Thomas Frank - What's the Matter with Liberals?

What's the Matter with Liberals?
By Thomas Frank

For more than thirty-five years, American politics has followed a populist pattern as predictable as a Punch and Judy show and as conducive to enlightened statesmanship as the cycles of a noisy washing machine. The antagonists of this familiar melodrama are instantly recognizable: the average American, humble, long-suffering, working hard, and paying his taxes; and the liberal elite, the know-it-alls of Manhattan and Malibu, sipping their lattes as they lord it over the peasantry with their fancy college degrees and their friends in the judiciary.

Conservatives generally regard class as an unacceptable topic when the subject is economics—trade, deregulation, shifting the tax burden, expressing worshipful awe for the microchip, etc. But define politics as culture, and class instantly becomes for them the very blood and bone of public discourse. Indeed, from George Wallace to George W. Bush, a class-based backlash against the perceived arrogance of liberalism has been one of their most powerful weapons. Workerist in its rhetoric but royalist in its economic effects, this backlash is in no way embarrassed by its contradictions. It understands itself as an uprising of the little people even when its leaders, in control of all three branches of government, cut taxes on stock dividends and turn the screws on the bankrupt. It mobilizes angry voters by the millions, despite the patent unwinnability of many of its crusades. And from the busing riots of the Seventies to the culture wars of our own time, the backlash has been ignored, downplayed, or misunderstood by liberals.

The 2004 presidential campaign provides a near-perfect demonstration of the persistent power of backlash—as well as another disheartening example of liberalism's continuing inability to confront it in an effective manner. So perfect, in fact, that it deserves to be studied by political enthusiasts for decades to come, in the manner that West Point cadets study remarkable infantry exploits and MBAs study branding campaigns that conjured up billions out of nothing but a catchy jingle.

With his aristocratic manner and his much-remarked personal fortune, the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, made an almost perfect villain for the backlash pantomime. Indeed, he had been one of its targets since his earliest days in politics. In the 1972 proto-backlash manifesto, The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, Michael Novak interpreted that year's TV showdown between Kerry and his fellow naval officer John O'Neill as a skirmish in this then-novel form of inverted class war. While the two men seemed to be debating issues related to the Vietnam War, and while Kerry was on the left and thus, theoretically at least, an ally of working people, Novak believed he saw the brutal social truth beneath it all:

Comparison was immediately drawn between Kerry's Yale pedigree, good looks, smooth speech, powerful connections, and the limited resources, plainness of manner, ordinariness of O'Neill. Class resentment was tangible.[1]

Class resentment was more than just "tangible" in 1972 when Kerry ran for Congress in the area around the crumbling Massachusetts industrial cities of Lowell and Lawrence: the Democrat was snob-baited for days on page one of the local newspaper, mocked for his Yale education, his celebrity supporters, and, of course, his money. An advertisement placed by his Republican opponent asked:

What do Otto Preminger of Hollywood and Louis Biron of Lowell have in common? This year they're influencing a congressional race. Otto Preminger contributed $1,000 to John Forbes Kerry. Louis Biron gave $15 to Paul Cronin.[2]

From the dying Massachusetts mill towns of 1972 to the dying Ohio steel towns of 2004, the backlash response to John Kerry would remain remarkably consistent. To judge by the candidate's actions, though, it was as if none of it had ever happened. Kerry had been hounded his entire career for being a snooty, distant aristocrat, but like so many of his Democratic colleagues, he seemed to take little notice.

For the 2004 campaign, Kerry moved to the center, following the well-worn path of the corporate Democrats before him, downplaying any "liberal" economic positions that might cost him among the funders and affirming his support for the Iraq invasion even after the official justifications for that exercise had been utterly discredited. Kerry's pallid strategy offered little to motivate the party's traditional liberal and working-class base, but revulsion against Bush was assumed to be reason enough to get out and vote. And besides, such an approach was supposed to protect the Democrat from the inevitable charges of insufficient toughness.

A newcomer to American politics, after observing this strategy in action in 2004, would have been justified in believing that the Democrats were the party in power, so complacent did they seem and so unwilling were they to criticize the actual occupant of the White House. Republicans, meanwhile, were playing another game entirely. The hallmark of a "backlash conservative" is that he or she approaches politics not as a defender of the existing order or as a genteel aristocrat but as an average working person offended by the arrogance of the (liberal) upper class. The sensibility was perfectly caught during the campaign by onetime Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, who explained it to The New York Times like this: "Joe Six-Pack doesn't understand why the world and his culture are changing and why he doesn't have a say in it."[3] These are powerful words, the sort of phrase that could once have been a slogan of the fighting, egalitarian left. Today, though, it was conservatives who claimed to be fighting for the little guy, assailing the powerful, and shrieking in outrage at the direction in which the world is irresistibly sliding.

The only centrism to be seen on the Republican side was the parade of GOP moderates across the stage of Madison Square Garden, an exercise clearly intended more to pacify and reassure the press than to win over actual voters. When the cameras were off, it was a completely different affair: what Karl Rove called a "mobilization election" in which victory would go to the party that best rallied its faithful. What this meant in practice was backlash all the way: an appeal to class resentment and cultural dread that was unprecedented in its breadth; ingenious state-level ballot initiatives on "values" questions that would energize voters; massive church-based get-out-the-vote efforts; and paranoid suggestions from all sides inviting voters to believe the worst about those tyrannical liberal snobs.

Senator Sam Brownback's activities at the Republican convention offer us a glimpse of this strategy in microcosm. In his speech before the assembled delegates and the eyes of the world, the godly Kansan came off as a thoughtful, caring Republican who wanted only to heal the sick and halt religious persecution overseas; when he spoke at a private meeting of evangelical Christians, however, he took on the tone of affronted middle-American victimhood, complaining to a roomful of Christian conservatives that "the press beats up on you like there's something wrong with faith, family and freedom" and exhorting them to "win this culture war."[4] For the conservative rank and file, this election was to be the culture-war Armageddon, and they were battling for the Lord.

Residents of West Virginia and Arkansas received mailings from the Republican National Committee warning that liberals would ban the Bible if they got the chance. In numerous other states, voters were energized by ballot initiatives proposing constitutional amendments reacting to the illusory threat of gay marriage, an institution that was already illegal almost everywhere, but that conservative activists nonetheless decried as a mortal, immediate menace to civilization itself. James Dobson, chairman of Focus on the Family, endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time ever and, proclaiming that "everything we hold dear is on the line" because of the threat of gay marriage, addressed gargantuan political rallies of evangelical Christians around the country.

Even the College Republicans got into the act, blanketing the land with letters exhorting recipients to send in $1,000 and a flag pin so that the President would know that "there are millions who are giving him the shield of God to protect him in the difficult days ahead." Meanwhile, an outfit called the American Veterans in Domestic Defense (AVIDD)[5] acquired the Ten Commandments monument that had been removed from the Alabama Supreme Court building the previous fall and hauled it around the country so that this holy relic, this physical reminder of the tyranny of liberalism, could strike fear into the hearts of the godless and stoke the flames of anger among the righteous and the persecuted.

In addition to these culture-war novelties, voters were also treated to a return engagement of the oldest backlash set-piece of them all: the treason of the rich kids during the Vietnam War.[6] Calling themselves the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group of Kerry's former comrades-in-arms stepped forward to declare that the candidate was a liar who did not deserve the medals he had won in combat and that his later activities as an antiwar leader amounted to a betrayal of the men he served with in Southeast Asia. It didn't matter that the accusations angrily advanced by the "Swifties" (as they are fondly known on the right) crumbled under the slightest scrutiny, just as it didn't matter that the principal members of the Bush administration had actively avoided service in Vietnam while Kerry had volunteered for it, and just as it didn't matter that the Pentagon under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had botched the nation's current military effort and even sent insufficiently armored soldiers into action. The backlash narrative is more powerful than mere facts, and according to this central mythology conservatives are always hardworking patriots who love their country and are persecuted for it, while liberals, who are either high-born weaklings or eggheads hypnotized by some fancy idea, are always ready to sell their nation out at a moment's notice.[7]

Much has been made in the months since the election of the national security issue and the role of fear in the Republican triumph, with some using the point to demand even more hawkish Democratic candidates in the future and others to underscore the Bush administration's scurrility in whipping up unreasonable public alarm since September 11. It is important to remember when discussing these issues, however, that much of their power arises from the same backlash cultural template that undergirds the rest of contemporary conservatism—indeed, that shooting war and culture war are of a piece in the conservative mind. What makes national security such a winner for Republicans is that is dramatizes the same negative qualities of liberalism that we see in the so-called "values" issues, only much more forcefully. War casts in sharp relief the inauthenticity of the liberals, the insincerity of their patriotism, and their intellectual distance (always trying to "understand" the terrorists' motives) from the raw emotions felt by ordinary Americans—each quality an expression of the deracinated upper-classness that is thought to be the defining characteristic of liberalism.

The reason conservatives are always thought to be tough and liberals to be effete milquetoasts (two favorite epithets from the early days of the backlash) even when they aren't is the same reason Americans believe the French to be a nation of sissies and the same reason the Dead End Kids found it both easy and satisfying to beat up the posh boy from the luxury apartment building: the cultural symbolism of class. If you relish chardonnay/lattes/ snowboarding, you will not fight. If you talk like a Texan, you are a two-fisted he-man who knows life's hardships and are ready to scrap at a moment's notice. This is the reason conservative authors and radio demagogues find it so easy to connect liberals and terrorists. It is the same reason, by extension, that old-time political nicknames like "the Fighting Liberal" make no sense to us anymore and that current foreign policy failures like North Korean nuclear proliferation do not bring lasting discredit on President Bush: in the face of such crises one is either a wimp or a hard guy, and we've already got a hard guy in there.

As the campaign dragged on, nearly every news story seemed to confirm the backlash fantasy. For example, when CBS News examined Dubya's years in the National Guard and based its conclusions on documents whose provenance could not be verified, the age-old charge of liberal bias suddenly became the topic of the day. While the distortions of the Swifties had brought no discredit on Republican campaign efforts, the CBS program was immediately understood not as an honest mistake but as a politically motivated hatchet job, the final proof that the nation's news organizations were out to get conservatives.

Then came what must rank as one of the most ill-conceived liberal electoral efforts of all time: in October the British Guardian newspaper launched a campaign to persuade one contested, blue-collar county in Ohio to vote against President Bush. The idea was to have Guardian readers in Britain write personal letters to voters in Ohio, whose names and addresses the newspaper had secured from registration rolls. Unsurprisingly, the Ohioans strongly resented being lectured to on the foolishness of their national leader by some random bunch of erudite Europeans. Indeed, the episode was so outrageous that there was almost no need for columnists and talk-radio hosts to sputter about the "pansy-ass, tea-sipping" liberal elitists who thought they knew best—the arrogance of the wretched thing spoke for itself.[8] The county had gone for Gore in 2000, but this time, like the state, like the nation, it chose Bush. And why not? Biased newscasters, conceited foreigners: to hell with them all.

But the most powerful evocation of the backlash spirit always comes from personal testimony, a tale of how one man came to realize that liberals weren't the friends of common folks but just the opposite. In the past it was figures like George Wallace and Norman Podhoretz and Ronald Reagan who declared that they hadn't left the Democratic Party, the party had left them; in 2004 that traditional role fell to Zell Miller, Democratic senator from Georgia, whose thunderous indictment of his liberal colleagues from the podium of the Republican convention caused such excitement in conservative circles. Here was Miller to assure Republicans that everything they'd ever suspected was true: that the real problem with American politics was that the Democrats had swerved too far to the left; that those same Democrats were led by self-hating people who think "America is the problem, not the solution"; that their presidential candidate was so beguiled by Frenchness—a classic stand-in for devitalized upper-classness—that he "would let Paris decide when America needs defending."[9]

Oddly enough, this same Zell Miller had once been known as a fairly formidable class warrior on the left, blasting Bush's father in a famous 1992 speech as a clueless "aristocrat" who knew nothing of hard work and then dropping this memorable zinger on Dan Quayle: "Not all of us can be born rich, handsome, and lucky, and that's why we have a Democratic Party."

But in the election of 2004 all the class anger was on the other side. Now it was the Democrat whose aristocratic lifestyle was always coming into question, who couldn't seem to take a step without detonating some explosive reminder of his exalted position. And it was Republican operatives who were gleefully dropping the word "elitist" on the liberal at every turn for his affected, upper-class ways. For his supposed love of brie cheese. For his wealthy wife's supposed unfamiliarity with chili. For his mansion. His yacht. His windsurfing. His vacations with celebs on Nantucket Island. The secretary of commerce said he thought Kerry "looks French." The House majority leader made a habit of starting off speeches with the line, "Good afternoon, or, as John Kerry might say: 'Bonjour!'" The NRA came up with an image that brilliantly encapsulated the whole thing: an elaborately clipped French poodle in a pink bow and a Kerry-for-president sweater over the slogan "That dog don't hunt."[10]

And now it was the drawling son of 1992's aristocrat who was drawing the adoring throngs in the shuttered mill towns and coal-mining regions. It was the committed enemy of organized labor whose prayerful public performances persuaded so many that he "shares our values." It was the man who had slashed taxes on inherited fortunes and dividends who was said to be, in the election's most telling refrain, "one of us."

George W. Bush was authentic; John Forbes Kerry, like all liberals, was an affected toff, a Boston Brahmin who knew nothing of the struggles of average folks. Again and again, in the course of the electoral battle, I heard striking tales of this tragically inverted form of class consciousness: of a cleaning lady who voted for Bush because she could never support a rich man for president. Of the numerous people who lost their cable TV because of nonpayment but who nevertheless sported Bush stickers on their cars.

The most poignant, though, was one I saw with my own eyes: the state of West Virginia, one of the poorest in the nation, in the process of transforming itself into a conservative redoubt. This is a place where the largest private-sector employer is Wal-Mart and where decades of bloody fights between workers and mine owners gave rise to a particularly stubborn form of class consciousness. It does not stand to gain much from Bush's tax cuts and his crackdown on labor unions. But if class is a matter of cultural authenticity rather than material interests, John Kerry stood about as much of a chance there as the NRA's poodle did of retrieving a downed duck. As I toured the state's valleys and isolated mining towns, I spotted Bush posters adorning even the humblest of dwellings and mobile homes. Voters I spoke to told me they planned on voting Republican because of their beliefs regarding abortion or gun control.[11]

Every hamlet seemed to have a son or daughter on duty in Iraq, and wartime loyalty to the commander in chief was in the air. Running through each of these issues was the sense that Bush was somehow more authentic than his challenger. In the city of Charleston, West Virginia, I was told by a conservative activist that

when you see those photos of [Bush] on his ranch down in Texas, with jeans and a cowboy hat, that's genuine. I was in Beckley when he was there a couple weeks ago, and that crowd, four thousand people, they loved the man. They loved the man. Personally... You can't manufacture that; you can't fake it. They love him. They connect with him, they think he understands them, and I think he does, too.

West Virginia had been carried by Bill Clinton, Michael Dukakis, and almost every other Democratic candidate going back to Franklin Roosevelt, but this time it went Republican by a convincing thirteen percentage points.

The illusion that George W. Bush "understands" the struggles of working-class people was only made possible by the unintentional assistance of the Democratic campaign. Once again, the "party of the people" chose to sacrifice the liberal economic policies that used to connect them to such voters on the altar of centrism. Advised by a legion of tired consultants, many of whom work as corporate lobbyists in off years, Kerry chose not to make much noise about corruption on Wall Street, or to expose the business practices of Wal-Mart, or to spend a lot of time talking about raising the minimum wage.[12]

The strategy had a definite upside: Kerry's fund-raising almost matched that of the Republican candidate, while the newspapers brimmed with exciting tales of New Economy millionaires volunteering to work their entrepreneurial magic for the Democrats, and the society sheets offered juicy details on fund-raising stunts pulled by wealthy women of fashion.[13] Yet there can be no question about this scheme's ultimate effects. As the savvy political journalist Rick Perlstein put it in a postelection report,

For a party whose major competitive advantage over the opposition is its credibility in protecting ordinary people from economic insecurity, anything that compromises that credibility is disastrous.[14]

Swearing off economic liberalism also prevented Democrats from capitalizing on the great, glaring contradiction of their rivals' campaign, namely, the GOP's tendency to demote "values" issues once elections are over. Republicans may have seemed like God's authentic warriors when seen from the streets of Beckley, West Virginia, but as I wandered among the celebrations at the Republican convention in September it was obvious that they were still primarily soldiers for the business community, courting their most important constituency in the manner to which it was accustomed. Indeed, examples of the distinctly nonpopulist essence of Republicanism were hard to miss: the well-dressed GOP revelers pouring out into Fifth Avenue traffic as they left a party that had been held—so tastefully!—at the Cartier jewelry shop; or (my personal favorite) the Republicans celebrating tax cuts and laughing at Purple Heart winners[15] at a party in the New York Yacht Club, the kind of place that makes it easy for a fellow of means to pine for the nineteenth century.

At one party, held in a former bank building, I saw the relationship between the two GOP factions acted out in a manner so bluntly allegorical it could have been a Herblock cartoon. The party's nominal purpose was an episode of the talk-radio program hosted by Michael Reagan (the more conservative of the late president's sons), but the majority of the action seemed to be the generous dispensing of top-shelf liquor to satisfied corporate lawyers and Wall Street types. While these chosen ones sank comfortably into high-end inebriation, a string of famous right-wing talkers could be seen mounting the balcony where Reagan sat and taking their turns before his microphone, each one no doubt switching on the anger and giving virtuoso performances of their trademark anti-elitist routines for the listening hinterland. And high up on the stone wall of the building were inscribed these words, a sort of caption for the evening's doings: "Having little, you can not risk loss. Having much, you should the more carefully protect it."

Culture war most assuredly helped protect those who had much in 2004. George W. Bush carried the white working-class vote by 23 percentage points, according to pollster Ruy Teixeira. Then, on the morning after the election, the country's liberals were astonished to hear that, according to exit polls, at least, "moral values" outranked all other issues in determining voters' choices.[16] Later on that same day, the reelected President Bush set out his legislative objectives for his second term. Making America a more moral country was not one of them. Instead, his goals were mainly economic, and they had precious little to do with helping out the working-class people who had stood by them: he would privatize Social Security once and for all and "reform" the federal tax code. "Another Winner Is Big Business," declared a headline in The Wall Street Journal on November 4, as businessmen everywhere celebrated the election results as a thumbs-up on outsourcing and continued deregulation.

In the months since then the magnitude of the corporate victory has only become more apparent, with Republicans in Congress working to tighten up bankruptcy law at the request of the credit card companies, open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the oil companies, and crack down on class-action lawsuits for the greater glory of Wal-Mart. The clout of the US Chamber of Commerce, the D.C. glamour lobbyist of the moment, is acclaimed by all as it raises millions to keep the pro-business bills coming. "Fortune 500 companies that invested millions of dollars in electing Republicans are emerging as the earliest beneficiaries of a government controlled by President Bush and the largest GOP House and Senate majority in a half century," wrote Jim VandeHei in The Washington Post.

And the values issues? They seemed to dissipate like so much smoke once the election was over and won. Republican Senator Arlen Specter, the chair-apparent of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, waited only a single day after his buddy Bush had been safely reelected before informing the nation that, no, his committee would not be approving judges who planned on overturning Roe v. Wade. The great crusade against gay marriage, which had worked such wonders for Republicans in so many states, was essentially abandoned by the President in January. After all, more important matters were beckoning: the war with the trial lawyers, for example, or the need to persuade people that our basically sound old-age insurance program was actually in crisis.[17]

In March the President and Republican congressional leaders chose to make much of the tragic Terri Schiavo affair, but the obvious futility of their legal demands and the patent self-interest of their godly grandstanding require little embellishment here.[18] Let us simply note how perfectly this incident, when paired with simultaneous GOP legislative action on big-business items, illustrates the timeless principles of the backlash. For its corporate backers, the GOP delivers the goods; for its rank-and-file "values" voters it chooses a sturdy wall against which they are invited to bang their heads.

Meanwhile the stunned Democrats held introspective panel discussions in Washington, wrote weepy editorials protesting that they, too, had values, and headed home for Christmas to lick their wounds. But the Republicans took no time off in the season of goodwill. Far from declaring a Christmas truce, they pressed their advantage in the Christmas Panic of 2004. 'Twas suddenly the season to be indignant, and from conservative commentators across the land there arose a collective clatter about how the liberal elite had ruined everyone's favorite holiday with their infernal determination to suppress the innocent folkways of the good Christian people of Middle America. The provocation was the decision by a handful of towns and school districts (as usual, every node of the right-wing publicity apparatus relied on the same three or four examples) to keep Nativity scenes off the lawns of city halls and overtly religious songs out of public school pageants.

The response was a huge collective exercise in persecution mania, with radio hosts joining newspaper columnists and evangelical leaders in depicting themselves as unassuming common people crushed under the boot heel of arrogant liberalism, of "cultural fascists," of "leftist jihadis hunting down Jesus," of "liberal, anti-Christmas Nazis," of those who believe "God is the enemy." "Blatant religious bigotry," steamed one columnist. Denial of "the rights of people to practice religion freely," moaned another. "True freedom of worship for Christians is under increasing attack," shrieked a third. "Leftist organizations are aggressively seeking to redefine America in their own God-less image," wrote Jerry Falwell. "They hate the idea of Christmas with a deep abiding hate," declared Pat Buchanan.[19]

Sean Hannity teamed up with Michael Medved to issue a CD in which the two could be heard deploring, an advertisement claimed, "the recent onslaught of cultural attacks against the Christian aspects of Christmas."[20] Paul Weyrich imagined himself a victim of thugs who want to "get back at God" and advised readers to bravely confront the liberal bullies by saying, "We're here. We are not going away. Neither is Christmas. Deal with it." As usual Ann Coulter struck the perfect note of persecuted-majority sarcasm, confessing to her readers that she "belong[s] to a small religious cult that celebrates the birth of Jesus." Bill O'Reilly warned of a "well-organized movement" following a "strategy of minimizing the birth of Jesus" because, duh, religion "stands in the way of gay marriage, partial birth abortion, legalized narcotics, euthanasia and many other secular causes." (A less well-known conservative, one Noel Sheppard, added to this vision of conspiracy his startling discovery that the liberals commenced their "coordinated attack on Christmas almost immediately after Senator Kerry conceded," thus revealing it as part of their sinister plan to prevail in 2006 and 2008.)

All across America a good old-fashioned red-state Christmas—just like the ones we used to know, only much touchier—brought another year of liberal woe to a close. Righteous parents fantasized that they were striking back at the liberal Gestapo every time they uttered the subversive phrase "Merry Christmas." Visions of noble persecution danced in everyone's heads, as dazed Democrats wandered upstairs for yet another long winter's nap.

[1] As for O'Neill's "limited resources," it is now known that O'Neill was in fact recruited by the Nixon administration to battle the articulate antiwar leader Kerry. Even at that early date, when the backlash seemed to have all the hot-button spontaneity of a real working-class revolt, it was substantially scripted and funded by the most powerful people in the land.

[2] Quoted in a Boston Globe retrospective of Kerry's career, "First Campaign Ends in Defeat," by Brian C. Mooney, June 18, 2003.

[3] It is important to remember that Bauer is the son of a janitor and that the organization he heads today bears the distinctly proletarian name Campaign for Working Families. See "Democrats in Red States: Just Regular Guys," The New York Times, August 22, 2004.

[4] Brownback addressed the convention during prime time on August 31; the gathering of Christian conservatives was called the Faith, Family and Freedom Rally, and for a supposedly media-free event, it generated a great deal of media coverage. See David Kirkpatrick, "A Senator's Call to 'Win This Culture War,'" The New York Times, September 1, 2004, and Julia Duin, "GOP Keeps Faith, But Not in Prime Time," Washington Times, September 1, 2004. At that same gathering, Republicans premièred a movie called George W. Bush: Faith in the White House, later distributed to churches around the nation, which, in the words of New York Times columnist Frank Rich, characterizes the President as "God's essential and irreplaceable warrior on Earth." See Frank Rich, "Now on DVD: The Passion of the Bush," The New York Times, October 3, 2004.

[5] On its Web site, AVIDD describes its mission by declaring that "American Veterans have defended America against its foreign enemies. We now have a number of domestic enemies loose in our beloved country." The organization also helpfully offers a list to clarify matters for the puzzled, naming as "Domestic Enemies" the judicial system, the Federal Reserve, the IRS, the NEA, the ACLU, the "Biased Liberal, Socialist News Media," and the "Conspiracy of an Immoral Film Industry." See .php?page=enemies.

[6] The supposed affluence of the Sixties antiwar movement is nearly always mentioned in conservative complaints about that era. For example, the anti-Kerry booklet published by the American Conservative Union points out that, "like many children of affluent parents, John Kerry joined the so-called New Left in its relentless attack on America." See Who Is John Kerry?, p. 51.

[7] Class resentment simmered just below the surface of the SwiftVets' charges. The TV commercials aired by the group took pains to underscore the averageness of the men's occupations, and a Washington Post story on the group, after pointing out that the Swifties' real beef with Kerry was his involvement in the antiwar movement, notes that "while Kerry went on to make a prominent political career, they got jobs as teachers, accountants, surveyors and oil field workers. When he ran for president, partly on the strength of his war record, their resentment exploded." See Michael Dobbs, "Swift Boat Accounts Incomplete," August 22, 2004, p. 1.

[8] When I first heard about the British letter-writing campaign, I couldn’t believe anyone was ignorant enough about American political sensibilities to do such a thing, or at least to do such a thing straight, on behalf of the candidate they really wanted to win. But they did. See Peronet Despeignes, "Brits' Campaign Backfires in Ohio," USA Today, November 4, 2004, and Andy Bowers, "Dear Limey Assholes..." Slate, November 4, 2004. The "pansy-ass, tea-sipping" epithet was one of the many responses sent by Ohio residents to the Guardian, according to USA Today.

[9] Just as interesting, to me anyway, was the fact that Zell Miller had taken until 2004 to figure all this out. The man had been a Democratic politician since the Fifties; each of his complaints had been part of the backlash repertoire for decades; and he had now come through the Sixties of Barry Goldwater and George Wallace, the Seventies of Archie Bunker and Dirty Harry, the Eighties of Ronald Reagan, and the Nineties of Newt Gingrich before deciding it was time to make his move to the right.

[10] In fact, poodles are hunting dogs, bred hundreds of years ago to retrieve ducks from water. Their distinctive clipped coats were designed to aid them in this purpose, keeping the dog's body and joints warm as it splashes about but otherwise leaving it free from encumbrance. See Jill Hunter Pellettieri, "Why Are Poodle Haircuts So Weird?," Slate, February 10, 2004.

[11] In this sense they were heeding the advice of Charlton Heston, who toured the state during the 2000 campaign, exhorting voters to break with their traditional support for Democrats on the hallucinatory grounds that Democrats would violate their right to bear arms, and that this delusional fear far outranked "marginal" economic issues. As Heston put it in one speech, "You must forget what some shop steward or news anchor said...forget all the marginal issues and vote freedom."

I toured West Virginia in the company of Serge Halimi, an editor at Le Monde Diplomatique. Read more about what we saw at /02usa.

[12] On Kerry's campaign advisers, see Anna Sullivan, "Fire the Consultants," Washington Monthly, January/February 2005. On the consultants' corporate connections, see journalist Doug Ireland's blog for September 8, 2004, /09/jesse_jackson_l.html. On the failure of Kerry to criticize Republicans for the many financial scandals of recent years, see the Op-Ed by Frank Partnoy, "Why Nobody Mentioned Markets," Financial Times, October 20, 2004. See also the essay by Eliot Spitzer in The New Republic, November 22, 2004, in which the same argument is made in greater detail, along with the point that John Kerry was, ironically, the perfect man to offer such criticism, since he had been one of the only national Democrats to support Spitzer's effort to clean up the mutual-fund industry.

[13] On New Economy millionaires, see Matt Bai, "Wiring the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy," The New York Times Magazine, July 25, 2004. On wealthy women of fashion, see Diana Kapp, "Insider," San Francisco, June 2004, which details the efforts of two Bay Area "shoe horses" to persuade their fellow "stylistas" to donate their shoe budget to the Kerry campaign instead.

[14] See "The Wal-Mart Factor," Boston Globe, November 7, 2004, in which Perlstein chides the Democrats for missing the biggest issue-opportunity of the year: the public's widespread unhappiness with the Wal-Mart retail model.

[15] While at this party I was handed a Band-Aid decorated with a purple heart, stapled to a note mocking John Kerry's war wounds. The obvious message was that if a liberal could get a Purple Heart, then Purple Hearts were a joke. Many of the other revelers were wearing the Band-Aids as they partied the night away.

[16] "Moral values" mattered most to 22 percent of the electorate (80 percent of whom voted for President Bush) while "Economy/Jobs" mattered most to 20 percent and "Terrorism" and "Iraq" accounted for 19 percent and 15 percent respectively. This poll has since been much criticized for its vagueness, and rightfully so. For example, while all the other options were quite specific, the choice of "moral values" was not defined in any way. What was incorporated under "moral values"? Isn't concern about the economy or the Iraq war also a matter of morality? My own suspicion is that the question was designed to identify conservative culture-war voters specifically, since "values" has been a standard slogan of the Bush campaign. However we look at it, though, no amount of criticism can wash that 22 percent figure away. Furthermore, the astonishment with which it was met in liberal circles cannot be understated.

[17] On the abandonment of the Federal Marriage Amendment by the President, see Bush's instantly infamous interview with The Washington Post, January 15, 2005. See also Robert Borosage's essay "Shafting Kansas," which appeared on on December 13, 2004.

[18] It is worth pointing out that the Schiavo matter, like every other culture-war skirmish over "values," was in fact suffused with the language of social class. For example, Daniel Henninger, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, described the Schiavo case as a battle between the people and the elites in that it "ensures that these future questions of who lives and who dies won't be decided by the professional class alone in conferences and courtrooms."

[19] "Cultural fascists": from a press release issued by William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, December 1, 2004, and widely circulated on the Internet ( "Leftist jihadis" and "God is the enemy": from an essay by Mac Johnson on the Web site of Human Events (Human Events Online), December 1, 2004. "Liberal, anti-Christmas Nazis": from an essay by Chris Field also on Human Events Online, dated December 20, 2004. "Blatant religious bigotry": from a radio editorial written by Connie Mackey, produced by the Family Research Council, December 6, 2004. "Rights of people to practice religion": from "ACLU Christmas Haters" by Kaye Grogan, December 10, 2004, and available on the Web site of RenewAmerica, an organization dedicated to the politics of Alan Keyes ( "True freedom of worship": from "Mistletoe, Snow and Subpoenas?" by Eve Arlia, December 10, 2004, and available on the Web site of the Concerned Women for America ( Falwell: "The Impending Death of Christmas?" Insight on the News, December 13, 2004. Buchanan: "Do They Know It's Christmas?," The American Conservative, January 17, 2005 (the essay also appeared in numerous on-line outlets in December 2004).

[20] The Hannity/Medved CD, Keeping Christ in Christmas, was advertised in this way on one of the Focus on the Family Web sites. Weyrich: "Make a Difference with 'Merry Christmas,'" an essay dated December 20, 2004 that appeared on the Web site of GOPUSA in addition to Insight on the News and the Web site of Weyrich's own Free Congress Foundation. Coulter: "Merry Christmas, Red States!" Human Events Online, December 23, 2004. O'Reilly: "Christmas Haters Have an Agenda," New York Daily News, December 13, 2004. "Coordinated attack on Christmas": from "How (and Why) the Left Stole Christmas," written by Noel Sheppard, December 15, 2004, which can be found, curiously enough, at a Web site called Sheppard's effort includes a humorous Christmas carol that goes, "It's appallingly looking NOT like Christmas/Ev'rywhere you go:/Leftists are at it once again, using their anchormen/ On a campaign to spread disdain you know."

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The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: A High-Tech Lynching in Prime Time

The New York Times The New York Times
April 24, 2005
A High-Tech Lynching in Prime Time

Whatever your religious denomination, or lack of same, it was hard not to be swept up in last week's televised pageantry from Rome: the grandeur of St. Peter's Square, the panoply of the cardinals, the continuity of history embodied by the joyous emergence of the 265th pope. As a show of faith, it's a tough act to follow. But that has not stopped some ingenious American hucksters from trying.

Tonight is the much-awaited "Justice Sunday," the judge-bashing rally being disseminated nationwide by cable, satellite and Internet from a megachurch in Louisville. It may not boast a plume of smoke emerging from above the Sistine Chapel, but it will feature its share of smoke and mirrors as well as traditions that, while not dating back a couple of millenniums, do at least recall the 1920's immortalized in "Elmer Gantry." These traditions have less to do with the earnest practice of religion by an actual church, as we witnessed from Rome, than with the exploitation of religion by political operatives and other cynics with worldly ends. While Sinclair Lewis wrote that Gantry, his hypocritical evangelical preacher, "was born to be a senator," we now have senators who are born to be Gantrys. One of them, the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, hatched plans to be beamed into tonight's festivities by videotape, a stunt that in itself imbues "Justice Sunday" with a touch of all-American spectacle worthy of "The Wizard of Oz."

Like the wizard himself, "Justice Sunday" is a humbug, albeit one with real potential consequences. It brings mass-media firepower to a campaign against so-called activist judges whose virulence increasingly echoes the rhetoric of George Wallace and other segregationists in the 1960's. Back then, Wallace called for the impeachment of Frank M. Johnson Jr., the federal judge in Alabama whose activism extended to upholding the Montgomery bus boycott and voting rights march. Despite stepped-up security, a cross was burned on Johnson's lawn and his mother's house was bombed.

The fraudulence of "Justice Sunday" begins but does not end with its sham claims to solidarity with the civil rights movement of that era. "The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias," says the flier for tonight's show, "and now it is being used against people of faith." In truth, Bush judicial nominees have been approved in exactly the same numbers as were Clinton second-term nominees. Of the 13 federal appeals courts, 10 already have a majority of Republican appointees. So does the Supreme Court. It's a lie to argue, as Tom DeLay did last week, that such a judiciary is the "left's last legislative body," and that Justice Anthony Kennedy, a Reagan appointee, is the poster child for "outrageous" judicial overreach. Our courts are as highly populated by Republicans as the other two branches of government.

The "Justice Sunday" mob is also lying when it claims to despise activist judges as a matter of principle. Only weeks ago it was desperately seeking activist judges who might intervene in the Terri Schiavo case as boldly as Scalia & Co. had in Bush v. Gore. The real "Justice Sunday" agenda lies elsewhere. As Bill Maher summed it up for Jay Leno on the "Tonight" show last week: " 'Activist judges' is a code word for gay." The judges being verbally tarred and feathered are those who have decriminalized gay sex (in a Supreme Court decision written by Justice Kennedy) as they once did abortion and who countenance marriage rights for same-sex couples. This is the animus that dares not speak its name tonight. To paraphrase the "Justice Sunday" flier, now it's the anti-filibuster campaign that is being abused to protect bias, this time against gay people.

Anyone who doesn't get with this program, starting with all Democrats, is damned as a bigoted enemy of "people of faith." But "people of faith," as used by the event's organizers, is another duplicitous locution; it's a code word for only one specific and exclusionary brand of Christianity. The trade organization representing tonight's presenters, National Religious Broadcasters, requires its members to "sign a distinctly evangelical statement of faith that would probably exclude most Catholics and certainly all Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist programmers," according to the magazine Broadcasting & Cable. The only major religious leader involved with "Justice Sunday," R. Albert Mohler Jr. of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has not only called the papacy a "false and unbiblical office" but also told Terry Gross on NPR two years ago that "any belief system" leading "away from the cross of Christ and toward another way of ultimate meaning, is, indeed, wicked and evil."

Tonight's megachurch setting and pseudoreligious accouterments notwithstanding, the actual organizer of "Justice Sunday" isn't a clergyman at all but a former state legislator and candidate for insurance commissioner in Louisiana, Tony Perkins. He now runs the Family Research Council, a Washington propaganda machine devoted to debunking "myths" like "People are born gay" and "Homosexuals are no more likely to molest children than heterosexuals are." It will give you an idea of the level of Mr. Perkins's hysteria that, as reported by The American Prospect, he told a gathering in Washington this month that the judiciary poses "a greater threat to representative government" than "terrorist groups." And we all know the punishment for terrorists. Accordingly, Newsweek reports that both Justices Kennedy and Clarence Thomas have "asked Congress for money to add 11 police officers" to the Supreme Court, "including one new officer just to assess threats against the justices." The Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy-making body for the federal judiciary, has requested $12 million for home-security systems for another 800 judges.

Mr. Perkins's fellow producer tonight is James Dobson, the child psychologist who created Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs media behemoth most famous of late for condemning SpongeBob SquarePants for joining other cartoon characters in a gay-friendly public-service "We Are Family" video for children. Dr. Dobson sees same-sex marriage as the path to "marriage between a man and his donkey" and, in yet another perversion of civil rights history, has likened the robed justices of the Supreme Court to the robed thugs of the Ku Klux Klan. He has promised "a battle of enormous proportions from sea to shining sea" if he doesn't get the judges he wants.

Once upon a time you might have wondered what Senator Frist is doing lighting matches in this tinderbox. As he never ceases to remind us, he is a doctor - an M.D., not some mere Ph.D. like Dr. Dobson - with an admirable history of combating AIDS in Africa. But this guy signed his pact with the devil even before he decided to grandstand in the Schiavo case by besmirching the diagnoses of neurologists who, unlike him, had actually examined the patient.

It was three months earlier, on the Dec. 5, 2004, edition of ABC News's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos," that Dr. Frist enlisted in the Perkins-Dobson cavalry. That week Bush administration abstinence-only sex education programs had been caught spreading bogus information, including the canard that tears and sweat can transmit H.I.V. and AIDS - a fiction that does nothing to further public health but is very effective at provoking the demonization of gay men and any other high-risk group for the disease. Asked if he believed this junk science was true, the Princeton-and-Harvard-educated Dr. Frist said, "I don't know." After Mr. Stephanopoulos pressed him three more times, this fine doctor theorized that it "would be very hard" for tears and sweat to spread AIDS (still a sleazy answer, since there have been no such cases).

Senator Frist had hoped to deflect criticism of his cameo on "Justice Sunday" by confining his appearance to video. Though he belittled the disease-prevention value of condoms in that same "This Week" interview, he apparently now believes that videotape is just the prophylactic to shield him from the charge that he is breaching the wall separating church and state. His other defense: John Kerry spoke at churches during the presidential campaign. Well, every politician speaks at churches. Not every political leader speaks at nationally televised political rallies that invoke God to declare war on courts of law.

Perhaps the closest historical antecedent of tonight's crusade was that staged in the 1950's and 60's by a George Wallace ally, the televangelist Billy James Hargis. At its peak, his so-called Christian Crusade was carried by 500 radio stations and more than 200 television stations. In the "Impeach Earl Warren" era, Hargis would preach of the "collapse of moral values" engineered by a "powerfully entrenched, anti-God Liberal Establishment." He also decried any sex education that talked about homosexuality or even sexual intercourse. Or so he did until his career was ended by accusations that he had had sex with female students at the Christian college he founded as well as with boys in the school's All-American Kids choir.

Hargis died in obscurity the week before Dr. Frist's "This Week" appearance. But no less effectively than the cardinals in Rome, he has passed the torch.

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Friday, April 22, 2005

Frist Draws Criticism From Some Church Leaders

The New York Times
April 22, 2005
Frist Draws Criticism From Some Church Leaders

WASHINGTON, April 21 - As the Senate battle over judicial confirmations became increasingly entwined with religious themes, officials of several major Protestant denominations on Thursday accused the Senate Republican leader, Bill Frist, of violating the principles of his own Presbyterian church and urged him to drop out of a Sunday telecast that depicts Democrats as "against people of faith."

Dr. Frist's participation has rekindled a debate over the role of religion in public life that may be complicating his efforts to overcome the Democrats' use of the filibuster, a parliamentary tactic used by Congressional minorities, to block President Bush's judicial nominees.

Dr. Frist has threatened to change the Senate rules to eliminate judicial filibusters, and in response Democrats have threatened a virtual shutdown of the Senate. A confrontation had been expected as early as next week, but it now appears that the showdown may be delayed.

Religious groups, including the National Council of Churches and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, plan to conduct a conference call with journalists on Friday to criticize Senator Frist's participation in the telecast. The program is sponsored by Christian conservative organizations that want to build support for Dr. Frist's filibuster proposal.

Among those scheduled to speak in the conference call is the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, a top official of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., in which Dr. Frist is an active member.

"One of the hallmarks of our denomination is that we are an ecumenical church," Mr. Kirkpatrick said in an interview on Thursday. He also said, "Elected officials should not be portraying public policies as being for or against people of faith."

A spokesman for Dr. Frist said his remarks, which are not yet available, would be consistent with previous statements about fair treatment for judicial nominees. "I would hope that he would read Dr. Frist's remarks," the spokesman, Bob Stevenson, said of Mr. Kirkpatrick.

Mr. Stevenson added that the timing of the confrontation on filibusters was not related to the criticisms that have been raised about the telecast, saying Dr. Frist still planned to propose a compromise to the Democrats.

Still, the Senate moved closer to a showdown on Thursday, when the Senate Judiciary Committee, voting along party lines, approved two nominees, Janice Rogers Brown and Priscilla R. Owen, who were blocked by a filibuster in the last Congress and are expected to be blocked again. Republican strategists consider the nominees - two women, one of whom is black - favorable choices for a filibuster fight.

There were signs, though, that Dr. Frist was planning to postpone the confrontation for at least another two weeks, when the Senate returns from a spring recess.

Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, said Dr. Frist had told him he would like to take up a transportation measure next week, an indication that he did not expect a filibuster fight before the Congressional recess. Polls, meanwhile, suggest a lack of public support for ending the filibuster. A recent survey conducted for NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found that 50 percent of those polled believed that the Senate should retain the filibusters for judicial nominations, while 40 percent were against and 10 percent undecided.

The theme of the telecast, which is called Justice Sunday and will be broadcast to churches and Christian radio and television networks, is "The Filibuster Against People of Faith." Its sponsors argue that by blocking judicial nominees who oppose abortion rights on religious and moral grounds, Democrats are effectively discriminating against those nominees.

Dr. Frist has agreed to provide a four-minute videotaped statement for the event. Democrats are calling his participation evidence of Republican extremism.

"We're going to allow the majority leader to invoke faith to rewrite Senate rules, to put substandard, extremist judges on the bench?" Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat and former presidential nominee, said Thursday on the Senate floor. Mr. Kerry added, "It's not up to us to tell any one of our colleagues what to believe as a matter of faith."

Christian conservatives have also accused Senator John Salazar of Colorado, a Roman Catholic, of tolerating anti-Catholicism from his fellow Democrats who oppose nominees who follow the church's teachings on abortions.

On Thursday, Mr. Salazar responded by issuing a statement taking to task one of the telecast's speakers, Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, for deprecating the Catholic faith. It quoted Mr. Mohler as saying "the Roman church is a false church and it teaches a false gospel" and "the pope himself holds a false and unbiblical office."

Dr. Mohler called Mr. Salazar's statement "absolutely ridiculous," saying it was hardly news that evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics "differ on many key theological issues." He said he supported a Catholic nominee the Democrats had opposed.

In the past two weeks, religious leaders on both sides of the judicial battle have plunged into the debate. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is distributing millions of postcards around the country for parishioners to send their senators asking them not to insist that nominees uphold abortion rights. Evangelical Protestant groups like Focus on the Family have been portraying the confirmation debates as a fight over public expression of religion and respect for traditionalist values.

Now the liberal group People for the American Way is buying advertisements and distributing church program inserts that attack Senator Frist for invoking religious faith in what it says is a partisan context. The National Council of Churches is asking members to organize news conferences denouncing Dr. Frist.

The criticism of the telecast underscores the delicate task facing Dr. Frist, who is laying the groundwork for a possible presidential campaign in 2008, as he courts the evangelical Protestant groups and other religious traditionalists that formed the bedrock of President Bush's winning coalition. With his patrician bearing and background in the relatively liberal Presbyterian Church, Dr. Frist, a Harvard-trained transplant surgeon, does not fit in as naturally with Christian conservatives as President Bush.

Dr. Frist's overtures to Christian conservatives have drawn the ire of the more liberal hierarchies of other religious groups, including the officials of his own denomination. Dr. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches and a former Democratic congressman, said he had sought to include Mr. Kirkpatrick, of the Presbyterian Church, in the conference call both because Dr. Frist is Presbyterian and because of the church's emphasis on ecumenicalism.

"To say that some group of Christians has a monopoly on the ear of God is especially an outrage to Presbyterians," Mr. Edgar said.

Mr. Kirkpatrick said Dr. Frist's participation in the telecast undermined "the historical commitment in our nation and our church to an understanding of the First Amendment that elected officials should not be portraying public policies as being for or against people of faith."

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and organizer of the telecast, said those who were offended did not have to watch the telecast.

"There are millions of other Americans who see a connection between the filibuster and judicial activism," Mr. Perkins said. "And when we talk about judicial activism, we are talking about issues that people faith care about deeply."

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Los Angeles Times: 2 Evangelicals Want to Strip Courts' Funds,1,799431.story?ctrack=1&cset=true
2 Evangelicals Want to Strip Courts' Funds
Taped at a private conference, the leaders outline ways to punish jurists they oppose.
By Peter Wallsten
Times Staff Writer

April 22, 2005

WASHINGTON — Evangelical Christian leaders, who have been working closely with senior Republican lawmakers to place conservative judges in the federal courts, have also been exploring ways to punish sitting jurists and even entire courts viewed as hostile to their cause.

An audio recording obtained by the Los Angeles Times features two of the nation's most influential evangelical leaders, at a private conference with supporters, laying out strategies to rein in judges, such as stripping funding from their courts in an effort to hinder their work.

The discussion took place during a Washington conference last month that included addresses by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who discussed efforts to bring a more conservative cast to the courts.

Frist and DeLay have not publicly endorsed the evangelical groups' proposed actions. But the taped discussion among evangelical leaders provides a glimpse of the road map they are drafting as they work with congressional Republicans to achieve a judiciary that sides with them on abortion, same-sex marriage and other elements of their agenda.

"There's more than one way to skin a cat, and there's more than one way to take a black robe off the bench," said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, according to an audiotape of a March 17 session. The tape was provided to The Times by the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

DeLay has spoken generally about one of the ideas the leaders discussed in greater detail: using legislative tactics to withhold money from courts.

"We set up the courts. We can unset the courts. We have the power of the purse," DeLay said at an April 13 question-and-answer session with reporters.

The leaders present at the March conference, including Perkins and James C. Dobson, founder of the influential group Focus on the Family, have been working with Frist to eliminate the filibuster for judicial nominations, a legislative tool that has allowed Senate Democrats to stall 10 of President Bush's nominations. Frist is scheduled to appear, via a taped statement, during a satellite broadcast to churches nationwide Sunday that the Family Research Council has organized to build support for the Bush nominees.

The March conference featuring Dobson and Perkins showed that the evangelical leaders, in addition to working to place conservative nominees on the bench, have been trying to find ways to remove certain judges.

Perkins said that he had attended a meeting with congressional leaders a week earlier where the strategy of stripping funding from certain courts was "prominently" discussed. "What they're thinking of is not only the fact of just making these courts go away and re-creating them the next day but also defunding them," Perkins said.

He said that instead of undertaking the long process of trying to impeach judges, Congress could use its appropriations authority to "just take away the bench, all of his staff, and he's just sitting out there with nothing to do."

These curbs on courts are "on the radar screen, especially of conservatives here in Congress," he said.

Dobson, who emerged last year as one of the evangelical movement's most important political leaders, named one potential target: the California-based U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

"Very few people know this, that the Congress can simply disenfranchise a court," Dobson said. "They don't have to fire anybody or impeach them or go through that battle. All they have to do is say the 9th Circuit doesn't exist anymore, and it's gone."

Robert Stevenson, a spokesman for Frist, said Thursday that the Senate leader does not agree with the idea of defunding courts or shutting them down, pointing to Frist's comments earlier this month embracing a "fair and independent judiciary." A spokesman for DeLay declined to comment.

The remarks by Perkins and Dobson drew fire from Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who charged that the two leaders were more brazen in such private encounters with supporters than their more genteel public images portray.

"To talk about defunding judges is just about the most bizarre, radical approach to controlling the outcome of court decisions that you can imagine," Lynn said.

Frist is expected to try as early as next week to push the Senate to ban filibusters on judicial nominations — a move so explosive that Democrats are calling it the "nuclear option."

Democrats have been using the filibuster to block 10 of Bush's appeals court nominees who they believe are too extreme in their views, but the skirmishes are considered a preview of a highly anticipated fight over replacing the ailing Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, whose retirement is considered imminent.

"Folks, I am telling you all that it is going to be the mother of all battles," Dobson predicted at the March 17 meeting. "And it's right around the corner. I mean, Justice Rehnquist could resign at any time, and the other side is mobilized to the teeth."

The remarks by Perkins and Dobson reflect the passion felt by Christians who helped fuel Bush's reelection last year with massive turnout in battleground states, and who also spurred Republican gains in the Senate and House.

Claiming a role by the movement in the GOP gains, Dobson concluded: "We've got a right to hold them accountable for what happens here."

Both leaders chastised what Perkins termed "squishy" and "weak" Republican senators who have not wholeheartedly endorsed ending Democrats' power to filibuster judicial nominees. They said these included moderates such as Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. They also grumbled that Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and George Allen of Virginia needed prodding.

"We need to shake these guys up," Perkins said.

Said Dobson: "Sometimes it's just amazing to me that they seem to forget how they got here."

Even Bush was not spared criticism. Dobson and Perkins encouraged their supporters to demand that the president act as aggressively on the judiciary as he has for his Social Security overhaul.

"These are not Bill Frist's nominees; these are President George W. Bush's nominees," Perkins said. "He needs to be out there putting pressure on these senators who are weak on this issue and standing in obstruction to these nominations," he said.

Dobson chided Frist, a likely 2008 presidential contender, for not acting sooner on the filibuster issue, urging "conservatives all over the country" to tell Frist "that he needs to get on with it."

Dobson also said Republicans risked inflicting long-term damage on their party if they failed to seize the moment — a time when Bush still has the momentum of his reelection victory — to transform the courts. He said they had just 18 months to act before Bush becomes a "lame-duck president."

"If we let that 18 months get away from us and then maybe we got Hillary to deal with or who knows what, we absolutely will not recover from that," he said.

Perkins and Dobson laid out a history of court rulings they found offensive, singling out the recent finding by the Supreme Court that executing minors was unconstitutional. They criticized Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's majority opinion, noting that the Republican appointee had cited the laws of foreign nations that, Dobson said, applied the same standard as "the most liberal countries in Europe."

"What about Latin America, South America, Central America? What about China? What about Africa?" Dobson asked. "They pick and choose the international law that they want and then apply it here as though we're somehow accountable to Europe. I resent that greatly."

DeLay has also criticized Kennedy for citing foreign laws in that opinion, calling the practice "outrageous."

As part of the discussion, Perkins and Dobson referred to remarks by Dobson earlier this year at a congressional dinner in which he singled out the use by one group of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants in a video that Dobson said promoted a homosexual agenda.

Dobson was ridiculed for his comments, which some critics interpreted to mean the evangelist had determined that the cartoon character was gay.

Dobson said the beating he took in the media, coming after his appearance on the cover of newsmagazines hailing his prominence in Bush's reelection, proved that the press will only seek to tear him down.

"This will not be the last thing that you read about that makes me look ridiculous," he said.

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US already moving toward a flat tax |

From the Christian Science Monitor
April 14, 2005 edition -

US already moving toward a flat tax
Bigger tax breaks for wealth produces a system in which the middle class pays about the same as the rich.

By David R. Francis | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Billionaires are paying not much more taxes, proportionately, than those Americans who are merely prosperous.

It's a sign that, even without the formal adoption of a so-called "flat tax," America's tax system is getting flatter.

Ever since the introduction of the modern income tax in 1913, US policy has been guided by the notion that the rich should pay a larger of their income in federal taxes, since they arguably owe something extra to a government that protects their greater wealth, and to a society that has helped them prosper.

But a debate has long waged over just where to draw the line, with populists pushing to "soak the rich" and conservatives arguing that a too-progressive tax structure creates a disincentive for the creation of jobs and wealth that benefit the whole nation.

Chalk up President Bush as not just a tax cutter but also a tax flattener. Under Mr. Bush and a Republican Congress, big tax cuts since 2001 have given major tax reductions to those wealthy individuals presumed, up to now, to be able to afford paying a bigger chunk of their income in taxes. By one measure of the federal, state, and local tax burden, just 3.4 percentage points separate the effective tax rate paid by the top 1 percent of earners from the other 99 percent of American households.

"That's the goal of the president and Congress - to shift the tax and debt burden to middle-income Americans," charges Bob McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ), a liberal Washington think tank that crunched the numbers.

The comment may be unfair to a president who has cut taxes for all income groups, and has not publicly espoused such a goal. But his policies could have the effect of shifting greater tax burdens to the middle class.

If the Bush tax cuts are made permanent by Congress, by 2010 billionaires and millionaires will be paying a smaller percentage of their income in federal taxes than those in the upper middle class, according to a calculation by Brian Roach, an economist at Tufts University, in Medford, Mass.

In his second term, Bush has identified further tax reform as a top goal. This could include a push for a flat tax, one in which all income groups are asked to pay the same rate.

Two tax cuts currently before Congress would flatten taxes further - if their proponents overcome objections to measures that would add to the already large budget deficit.

Many conservatives see the shift to a flatter system as progress. It leaves more money of the well-to-do untaxed, and thus available for the investment that creates jobs and prosperity. Eventually, a truly flat tax system could be simpler than the current one, encrusted by years of detailed congressional changes in the law to please various constituents.

Simpler tax filing would be welcome to most Americans. A new AP-Ipsos poll finds that most Americans think federal income taxes are too complicated, but they're not eager to get rid of some deductions and tax credits. And when asked about instituting a flat tax, a majority doesn't like the idea. Some 57 percent of those surveyed say people with higher incomes should pay a higher tax rate, while 40 percent thought tax rates should be the same for everyone.

In 1913, only 0.5 percent of the population paid the tax, and rates rose from 1 percent to 7 percent as income increased. That income tax level has risen, of course, but progressivity remained an important element.

The system still has progressivity, but that element is shrinking.

When the top 1 percent of taxpayers, those making an average $978,000 last year, sent in their tax forms for 2004 to the Internal Revenue Service in recent weeks, on average they paid 24.6 percent of their income in federal taxes. That rate is down 4.3 percentage points from pre-Bush tax law.

All income brackets have got tax cuts under Bush. But the reductions for less affluent Americans are smaller, proportionally, than those for the millionaires and billionaires.

The "effective" tax rate is that which taxpayers actually pay. It isn't the higher marginal tax rate paid on their last dollar of income.

The poor, the near-poor, and the lower middle class do pay a lower effective federal tax rate. The bottom 20 percent, for instance, pay 7.9 percent - basically just payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare.

When less progressive state and local taxes are added, the nation's tax system becomes even flatter. CTJ's analysis finds the top 1 percent were paying at a 32.8 percent rate, with the bottom 20 percent paying at a 19.7 percent rate.

A study last summer by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) of effective tax rates basically confirms the flattening pattern shown in the CTJ analysis. Because the CBO uses modestly different assumptions - for instance, it ignores the estate tax - its numbers are slightly different.

Several factors explain the flattening in the federal tax code. Under Bush, the tax on dividends and capital gains has been cut - although not eliminated, as flat-tax proponent Steve Forbes proposed in his 1996 presidential bid. The wealthy own the bulk of stocks and other financial assets.

Under Bush tax-cut legislation, the estate tax shrinks and then expires in 2010. But it is slated to return to a 55 percent level on large estates in 2011. Permanent repeal, under consideration in the House this week, would flatten federal taxes further in the next decade.

The other tax legislation now under review is a budget resolution in the Senate that would eliminate income taxes on Social Security payments. This would primarily benefit affluent seniors. The rich would also gain, but it would be a drop in their bigger buckets.

The fate of both tax provisions is uncertain. The budget process will likely continue until the fall.

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Andrew Sullivan - Quote for the Day - Daily Dish: "QUOTE FOR THE DAY I: 'I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute -- where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote -- where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference ... I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish -- where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source -- where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.' - president John F. Kennedy. At the time, the speech was regarded as an attempt to refute anti-Catholic prejudice. Today, wouldn't the theocons regard it as an expression of anti-Catholic prejudice? Wouldn't Bill Frist see president Kennedy as an enemy of 'people of faith'? Just asking."

Joe Conason - Who's playing politics?

Who's playing politics?
John Bolton's nomination isn't being derailed by Democrats but by dissident Republicans, who reflect even broader discomfort with Bush's choice.

- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Joe Conason

April 22, 2005 | In defense of John Bolton's nomination as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the White House is once again exploring the boundaries of "reality-based" perception. The Bush administration and its allies are pretending that opposition to Bolton is strictly partisan and political. Yet what must be clear to anyone observing this process is that Democrats alone could scarcely have stalled Bolton, let alone inflicted what may be fatal damage to his nomination.

Indeed, despite unanimous Democratic misgivings about Bolton's rigid ideology and undistinguished record, he would be on his way to Turtle Bay by now -- except for the serious doubt and strong dissent expressed by Republican legislators and diplomats about his conduct, competence, honesty and temperament.

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Scott McClellan attributed the problems encountered by Bolton to "ugly" tactics by Democrats, whom he accused of "playing politics" on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a charge he repeated in his usual robotic style when reporters questioned his false narrative. "The accusations that are being made [against Bolton] are unsubstantiated," he insisted at the White House press briefing. "Again, Democrats continue to raise them." Then on Thursday morning, the president echoed his spokesman's complaint, demanding that the Senate "put aside politics and confirm John Bolton to the United Nations."

If Bolton's prospects have been dimmed by "politics," however, the troubles appear to reflect a growing division within the president's own party. While Bush may not read newspapers, he must be aware that dissident Republicans, not Democrats, were responsible for the dramatic postponement of a confirmation vote in the Foreign Relations Committee. Reflecting their Senate majority, Republicans enjoy a two-vote advantage over Democrats on the committee, which naturally ensures a favorable vote for any Bush nominee only if the majority remains united.

That was why the Washington press corps had predicted so confidently that the White House and the Senate leadership would ram through the Bolton nomination, regardless of the testimony against him and the mounting concern about his unfitness for the U.N. post. What stopped him was the looming defection of at least one -- and possibly two or even three -- of the committee's 10 Republicans. A sudden threat to vote no by George Voinovich, R-Ohio, prompted committee chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., to put off the vote for three weeks pending "further investigation." Meanwhile, Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and the Hamlet-like Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., each took another step back from their already hesitant support for Bolton. Although Democratic resistance and savvy maneuvering set the stage for that dramatic moment, the key actors belonged to the ruling party.

Everyone paying attention noticed all that, of course. But what appeared to be an abrupt repositioning by a few moderate Republicans actually reflected broader and deeper discomfort with this nominee.

Among the earliest strikes against the Bolton nomination, for example, was the little-noticed broadside delivered by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a tough old conservative who rarely disagrees publicly with the president. Domenici is an expert on nuclear proliferation, which happens to be Bolton's primary responsibility in his current State Department post. After observing Bolton for the past three years, Domenici has judged him harshly for failing to complete negotiations with Russia over disposal of tons of extremely dangerous weapons-grade plutonium. He first noted Bolton's incompetence during hearings last June. "Mr. John Bolton, who has been assigned to negotiate this, has a very heavy responsibility," he said. "I hate to say that I am not sure to this point that he's up to it."

In early March, Domenici told the Albuquerque Journal, his hometown paper, that he was "lukewarm" about the Bolton nomination.

So was Bolton's former boss Colin Powell, who pointedly declined to endorse a letter of support that bore the signatures of five earlier Republican secretaries of state. So were various high-profile Republican diplomats and flag officers, notably including former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former National Security Advisor and retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who have quietly made known their disdain. So was conservative intelligence analyst and lifelong Republican Carl Ford, who testified with eloquent anger about Bolton's vengeful behavior toward subordinates who displeased or disagreed with him.

What Steven Clemons of the online Washington Note describes as "serial abuse" of his State Department colleagues is certainly not Bolton's only disturbing characteristic. Rudeness and tactlessness aren't exactly strong qualifications for a diplomat, but they would not be enough to forfeit support among Senate Republicans. Bolton's opponents in both parties are more concerned about his alleged distortion of intelligence material to serve his ideological agenda; his attempts to secure top-secret National Security Agency communications intercepts for an unknown purpose; and the unsettling likelihood that when all the facts finally emerge, he will prove to have been untruthful in his Senate testimony about some of those incidents.

"Politics" may actually be driving the Republicans who oppose Bolton, both within and outside the Senate. Their reasons to reject him might be idealistic, pragmatic or even opportunistic. In every case, however, they no longer feel automatically obliged to swallow whatever the White House is serving. And their independence can only be encouraged by Bush's declining public approval ratings, currently languishing well below 50 percent, with a substantial majority of citizens worried about the country's direction.

From the beginning, the president's advisors have pretended not to see or hear dissident Republicans. That insulting arrogance, which mirrors Bolton's own behavior, may well be the ultimate mistake in this misbegotten episode.