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Throw the Bums Out and Change Direction

The voters had their way: Now there are reasons to be cheerful -- and vigilant -- about a Democratic Congress.
 
 
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At an October fundraiser in Topeka, the Republican faithful lined up to shake hands with the headliner, Dick Cheney. But before getting to the Veep, they had to get past the wife of the local Congress critter. She was standing adjacent to Cheney, holding a big bottle of Purell, a hand sanitizer that claims to kill "99.99% of most common germs." Each person waiting to get their grip-and-grin with the honoree first had to accept a squirt of the goop from this lady to purify their hands! After the meet-and-greet was over, Cheney ducked backstage and rubbed a generous dollop of the antiseptic onto his own hands, cleansing him of the human contact he had just endured.

On November 7, however, it was voters doing the cleansing, washing their hands of the Bush-Cheney regime. Yes, I know that Bush & Gang are still there, and they'll be trying to do all the damage they can in their remaining two years. But by losing the House and Senate majority, they have hit a serious speed bump.

Toward the end of the campaign, the White House insisted that Republicans would retain control of Congress because voters were focused on local issues and candidates, not on Bush or his policies. "We have succeeded in making these races choices between two local candidates," bragged Karl Rove. And when a reporter suggested that Bush's disastrous war in Iraq was dragging down GOP congressional candidates, Cheney chimed in with his two cents' worth of political insight: "We're not running for office."

Wrong, Karl. Wrong, Dick. In its exit polls, The New York Times found that Bush's war, Bush's economy, and Bush himself were foremost on voters' minds as they entered the voting booths to toss out the Republican Congress.

68 percent said that the Iraq war was either "very" important or "extremely" important in how they voted (only 10 percent said it was "not at all" important).

83 percent said the economy was very or extremely important in how they voted (and 68 percent said that their family was either falling behind financially or barely staying even).

In fact, George has become so unpopular that only the GOP candidates in the reddest of red spots asked him to campaign with them. The cruelest blow came on the campaign's last day. Bush was to appear in Pensacola, Florida, at a Republican rally featuring the party's gubernatorial hopeful, Charlie Crist. Ten thousand partisans turned out for Bushbut one person who decided at the last minute not to come was…Charlie. Seeing Bush's poll numbers in Florida below 40 percent, Charlie suddenly remembered that he needed to be over in Palm Beach that day. Jilted, poor George had to call in Brother Jeb to do the introduction.

Spin it as they will, this election was a resounding rejection of the Bushites' agenda. As an independent voter in New Jersey said as she headed into her polling place, "I don't care if I vote for Happy the Clown, just so it's not who's there now." She added that she was voting "against the powers that put us in this situation" in Iraq.

Progressive surge

The establishment media pundits, clueless as ever, have tried their damndest to contort the Democratic sweep into a victory for conservatives! They claim that the Dems who won in red areas were victorious only because they adopted Republican-like positions on guns, abortion, or religion.

Your average rutabaga has a sharper analytical ability than that. If these pundits would venture out and talk with anyone besides themselves, they'd find that people aren't one-dimensional stick figures. Being a hunter and a defender of gun rights in a so-called red state, for example, doesn't turn you into Dick Cheney.

Take Jon Tester, the new senator from Montana. He's a big burly guy, with the boots, belly, and buzzcut that makes him appear to be a rural conservative caricature. To add to the stereotype, he's pro-gun and antigay marriage.

But let's fill in this stickman drawing of Tester. He's an organic farmer. He took time off in the heat of the campaign to go home to harvest his crops. He's a working guy who's missing three fingers from a tangle he had with a meat grinder. He's been a teacher, soil-conservation leader, and president of the state senate (where he established a solidly progressive record of siding with common folks against the corporate interests).

Jon defeated three-term incumbent and corporate favorite Conrad Burns by running a flatout populist campaign that took these stands: raise the minimum wage to a livable level, provide health care for all, fight the drug giants for lower prescription prices, stop big interests from selling off or locking up our public lands, halt the use of the Patriot Act to invade the lives of innocent Americans, oppose NAFTA-like trade scams, ban lobbyist-paid gifts and travel, make college affordable, promote renewable energy and conservation, save Social Security from the privatizers, battle railroad monopolies that hold rural communities captive, focus tax relief on the middle class instead of on millionaires, and--a big one--give military control of Iraq to the Iraqis, bring our troops home, and fully fund veterans' health care.

Conservative? On the kitchentable issues that matter to people (issues that require a political leader to side with ordinary folks against the corporate and governmental elites), Jon Tester is the kind of populist progressive that America needs.

The good news is that voters not only took out Bush's rubber- stamp congressional majority, but they also brought in a crop of real progressives who'll add badly needed energy and more of an "outsider" attitude to what has been a lackluster, tired, corporate-coddling Democratic party. In addition to Tester, the Senate will feel the progressive surge that will come from Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota), Claire McCaskill (Missouri), and Bernie Sanders (Vermont)--all of whom ran campaigns centered on economic populism.

Likewise, the House majority will be invigorated by a new class of Democrats who campaigned on a core progressive agenda, including minimum wage, health care, Social Security, and Bush's Iraq war. Meet a few of them.

Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire is a teacher, social worker, and staunch war opponent. Short on money but strong in volunteer support, she had to battle her own party's establishment to win the nomination. Then her shoe-leather, issue-oriented, no-nonsense, populist approach upset the GOP's entrenched incumbent, making her the first New Hampshire woman in history to go to Congress.

Tim Walz is a high-school teacher, football coach, 24-year member of the Army National Guard…and passionate defender of liberty and justice for all. In 2004, he escorted two of his students to a Bush rally in his hometown of Mankato, Minnesota. At the checkpoint, however, George W's security thugs barred them from entering because one of the students had a Kerry-Edwards sticker on his wallet. "This is not how America is supposed to be," Tim said. So he has now paid Bush back by running a populist campaign that upset a six-term incumbent who was a Bush apologist and servant of special interests. John Hall is a rock musician (founder of the band Orleans) and longtime environmental activist who lives in New York's Hudson Valley. In 2004 the Bushites lifted one of his tunes, "Still the One," as their presidential campaign song, not bothering to get permission. Hall protested their thievery and forced them to stop. This year -- with the enthusiastic backing of labor, environmental, and antiwar groups -- John lifted the Republican incumbent from Congress.

Jerry McNerney is a California alternative-energy entrepreneur, an engineer … and now a giant killer. With strong grassroots support from environmentalists and other progressives, McNerney had a stunning victory over Richard Pombo, the arrogant, corporate-hugging, antigovernment absolutist who was chair of the natural resources committee.

Vigorous antiestablishment campaigns like these have brought renewed progressive strength to Washington. More importantly, though, this year's campaigns have greatly strengthened our grassroots power, even in areas where our candidates didn't make it. We've added more and better-trained campaign activists, gained experience, spread the populist message where it has long been unheard, attracted new voters (including many who had dropped out or had considered themselves conservative), and created frameworks to sustain a continuing movement.

Seizing the initiative

While this was a "throw the bums out" year, it was just as clearly a "change America's direction" year, with the majority finally rising up to throw off the rightwing plutocracy, autocracy, theocracy, and kleptocracy that Bush & Company have hung around America's neck.

One sign of this fed-up sentiment was the total repudiation of a bit of corporate-backed ugliness called the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. Known as TABOR, it's more like a Bill of Wrongs, for it's essentially another ploy by the antitax, hate-government elites to defund even essential public services from education to public safety. It's the creature of the ultranutty Grover Norquist and receives its main financing from a multimillionaire New York developer named (you won't believe this!) Howie Rich.

TABOR was put forth as ballot initiatives in nine states this year, but six states stripped it from their ballots because of fraud and assorted wrongdoings by the initiative's pusher.Then, by convincing margins, the voters of Maine, Nebraska, and Oregon said no to TABOR's ideological malevolence.


Meanwhile, there was widespread positive news on the initiative front. The most resounding victories came in all six states which had initiatives to increase the minimum wage. Voters said "yes" in Arizona (66 percent approval), Colorado (53 percent), Missouri (76 percent), Montana (73 percent), Nevada (69 percent), and Ohio (56 percent). In all the states but Nevada, the initiatives also required that the minimum wage be adjusted annually for inflation. Voters in Arizona and Nebraska (supposedly antitax, bright-red states) approved initiatives to increase funding for early childhood education. Washington State voted to require that big utilities produce 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Oregon expanded access to a prescriptiondrug program for the uninsured, and Missouri okayed funding for stemcell research.

Secretaries of state

Amazingly, America still can't seem to get this democracy thing down. People are actively discouraged from voting, and votes aren't counted as the voter intended. There were no total meltdowns this year (à la Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004), but serious problems persisted. Outrageous electronic voting "glitches," disgraceful voter intimidation and suppression, and crass purges of voter rolls continue to be a plague on our country's democratic pretensions.

Some of the problems turned comical. In Ohio, Republican Congress critter Steve Chabot was turned away from voting because the address on his ID differed from the one on his registration card; the top election official in Missouri was asked three times to show a photo ID in order to vote, even though state law does not require one; and Gov. Mark Sanford was sent away from his South Carolina polling place because he showed up without his registration card.

Then there's the ghost of Katherine Harris. As Florida's secretary of state in 2000, she infamously rigged the vote count for George W. She then went to Congress, and this year she ran for (and lost) a U.S. Senate seat. But her bad mojo reached out and touched the election to replace her in the House. Touch-screen voting machines which she had championed as secretary of state appear to have malfunctioned on November 7 in her old congressional district, erasing the votes of some 18,000 people. Only 373 votes separated the two candidates, so a recount is underway. However, since there's no paper trail to these machines, it'll be hard to prove that all those people didn't just fail to vote in this particular race. This sort of ridiculous stuff is why the little-known office of the secretary of state is key to getting a grip on our democracy -- and why progressives ran for these offices in seven states this fall, winning in Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, and Ohio. In Minnesota, my old friend Mark Ritchie ousted an eight-year incumbent who had turned the office into an electioneering wing of the Republican party. Crisscrossing the state, Mark tapped into a deep well of anger about the lack of fairness and integrity in the voting system and will now do the work needed to restore people's faith.

What now?

On the plus side, some good people are going to be in positions to do good things in Congress. Speaker-tobe Nancy Pelosi has come out with a "First Hundred Hours" agenda that ranges from passing a new minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to breaking the corruption ties between lobbyists and legislation. And nearly everyone except "Slow Joe" Lieberman seems to realize that Bush's war is wrong and we must get out of it--pronto.

Also, there are some promising changes in who runs Congress's committees, such as John Conyers (Judiciary), David Obey (Appropriations), George Miller (Education and the Workforce), Henry Waxman (Government Reform), Nydia Velázquez (Small Business), Bennie Thompson (Homeland Security), Bob Filner (Veterans' Affairs), and Charlie Rangel (Ways and Means).

On the down side, there are still too many go-slow, don't-rock-theboat, weak-kneed, money-grubbing, corporatized Democrats who won't break their habits of bedding down with the lobbyists and even the Bushites. They will push hard from inside the Democratic Caucus (while the White House, the money interests and the establishment media pushes from outside) for the majority to "be nice," move to the corporate right, and agree from the start to surrender half of what they want (and then compromise down from there).

Now is the time for progressives to be more vigilant than ever -- focus on what the Democrats are doing and not doing, make loud and clear demands that they do more, and keep organizing at the grassroots level. Just a few months ago, George W. declared, "I'm the decider." No, he's not. Neither are the Democrats. You are.

From " The Hightower Lowdown ," edited by Jim Hightower and Phillip Frazer, December 2006. Jim Hightower is a national radio commentator, writer, public speaker, and author of "Thieves In High Places: They've Stolen Our Country And It's Time to Take It Back."

 
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