Stop the Thieves

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Always interesting to come into The City Where Everybody Says Exactly What Everybody Else Says, just to run my own reality check. If I'm out of step with the conventional wisdom, I'm doing fine. The minute I find myself saying what everybody else says, it's time to leave town.

Here in our nation's capital, the political reporter from the boonies is most often asked, "Is this Howard Dean thing for real?" Hey, they never heard of Howard Dean; Howard Dean never did time on The Hill. How are they supposed to have a read on him? Their provincialism is truly charming. In politics, when people ask, "Is the guy serious?" it means, does he have money? So, OK, Howard Dean is serious. Next question.

But Bush is serious is the next argument. Have you looked at that money? Well yes, and I certainly say that $200 million makes him serious as a stroke. But you tell me what he can run on. The economy is in terrible shape, and I'm not just talking about lost jobs. People's lives go to hell in a lot of ways beyond no jobs -- no unemployment insurance; no health insurance; cost of health insurance spiking double, triple; lost pensions; Bush wants to take away overtime -- you start adding all this up, and even out in the "red states" (it's so cute, the way they say things here), it's not looking so good for Bush.

But security -- he's strong on defense and security, right? One of those moments of clarity that demonstrate HERE IS THE PROBLEM in an unforgettably dramatic fashion occurred last Friday. American troops shot and killed nine Iraqi cops and wounded nine more while the cops were in hot pursuit of some bandits. Our guys mistook their guys for the bad guys. The firefight lasted three hours, with the Iraqi cops screaming, "We're the police!" the whole time. Unfortunately, we didn't have anyone who could understand what they were saying. That's the problem.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has gone into full ostrich posture. As Maureen Dowd observed, Donald Rumsfeld is starting to sound like Baghdad Bob, Saddam Hussein's fabulous flak. Vice President Cheney, who can tell whoppers with more portentous gravity than anyone since Henry Kissinger, said Sunday there is no reason to "think the strategy is flawed or needs to be changed." No reason at all -- not a bit, not a whit, right, Dick? Forget about the coffins and the wounded coming back in a steady stream, and the increased hatred and vengeance-seeking in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the president, who even sort of looks like Alfred E. Neuman, continues to assure us that he "was 'elected' to solve problems, not leave them to future presidents and future generations."

Uh, that would sound better if he hadn't just informed us he is borrowing another $87 billion, on top of the $79 billion we have already spent, to continue this famously successful policy that has no flaws and does not need to be changed. As The New York Times observed, those who will be paying off Bush's $87 billion with interest didn't hear his speech because they had already been put to bed by their parents.

If you will recall just three short years ago, this country was a going operation. Eight years of peace, prosperity and the busy, busy Republican scandal machine trying to convince us it was all an illusion.

Since then, we've started two wars, still don't have Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein and have spent millions on people who make us take off our shoes at the airport, and we are still as vulnerable to terrorist attack as ever. The Republican response on that is their favorite ploy, "Blame Bill Clinton," but the record shows that the Clinton administration was a lot more active in going after Al Qaeda than the Bush administration before Sept. 11.

Perhaps you have noticed, the only terrorists we have actually rounded up have all been caught through police operations, often with the cooperation of the Pakistanis, the French, the Spanish, even the Saudis, sometimes. Bombing two countries doesn't seem to have done anything to Al Qaeda except reinforce and reinvigorate it. A connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda at last! They moved in after we got rid of Saddam Hussein.

Meanwhile, the economy is in the toilet; even the optimists who think it will recover are predicting a "jobless recovery." Won't that be nice -- we can certainly look forward to whatever that is. And when we get our "jobless recovery," the government's in the hole for $500 trillion this year and most of the upscale Bush tax cuts haven't even kicked in yet. As we march bravely toward oceans of red ink (leaving behind no problem for future presidents or future generations), we also face a looming crisis in Social Security.

Let me be the first to say -- we shoulda listened to Al Gore. Al Gore was right, oh Lord, he was right. We shoulda put that money into a lockbox for Social Security. We are in a world of trouble now. As Paul Krugman pointed out in a Sunday New York Times magazine article, getting ourselves into a such a dire financial mess that we have to kill off or at least dramatically reduce Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is not just a slight miscalculation on the part of our leaders. They want to undo both the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson and the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt.

But I think there is something even worse being taken, being stolen, by this administration. As Jim Hightower observes in his excellent new book, "Thieves in High Places: They've Stolen Our Country and It's Time to Take It Back," what they're really stealing is the very idea of this country, the idea that there's a common good, that we're all in this together, that we all do better when we all do better.

In this country, we have the most extraordinary luck -- we are the heirs to the greatest political legacy any people have ever received. Our government is not THEM, our government is US (with room for improvement, to be sure). All this right-wing propaganda about how the government is The Enemy, the government needs to be strangled, needs to be starved, needs to be hocked off, as though schools and hospitals were horrible things -- it's all nuts.

It's our government, we can still make it do what we want it to when we take the time and put in the energy it takes to work with other people, organize, campaign and vote -- we can still make the whole clumsy, money-driven system work for us. And it's high time we did so.


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