Craig Aaron

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The Plot to Elect Kerry

For progressives, the only sensible way to approach Byron York's new book is by giving it "the Washington read"--index first--to find the names of your friends and allies. It's like cracking open a high school yearbook, except the homecoming king is George Soros.

Unfortunately, The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy isn't nearly as enjoyable when read from page one. York, the White House correspondent for the National Review, promises "the untold story" of "the biggest, richest and best-organized movement in American political history." But, alas, the conspiracy is neither as vast nor as cunning as advertised.

This breathless bit of reportage goes "behind-the-scenes" to "the Chinese restaurant where MoveOn was born" and "the Washington restaurant where Democratic operatives hatch their plans." In between meals, York takes in a few flicks by Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald, and uncovers a plot hatched by EMILY's List, Al Franken and a motley crew of "anti-Bush" bloggers "to bring down the president" by--gasp!--voting against him.

York's capable of quality journalism, such as his sympathetic but serious article on the downfall of the American Spectator in the November 2001 Atlantic Monthly. So it's regrettable that The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy is riddled with sloppy analysis, fuzzy statistics and convenient straw men because the left could benefit from a serious critique by the other side. Rather than puncturing preconceived notions or exploring whether the "anti-Bush" cabal's innovations truly represent a sea-change in American politics, York resorts to the all-too-easy portrayal of his political opponents as a "delusional" band of "extremist" wingnuts. York's plan of attack is death by a thousand cuts--using petty nitpicking, misleading quotes and rhetorical sleight-of-hand to portray the left as a junta of out-of-touch elites.

For instance, York paints MoveOn as part of the "peacenik" fringe for daring to question the bombing of Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq. (Warnings that, in hindsight, look awfully prescient with both Osama and the WMDs still at large.) York says the group has done little more than "connect a bunch of people who already agreed with each other." He means it as an insult. But one could say the same thing is the very definition of movement-building. After all, before MoveOn, millions of people didn't have a vehicle for their political views and hadn't gotten involved in electoral politics, made a campaign donation or called their member of Congress. But York insists that MoveOn mistakes its rapid membership growth--the envy of almost every interest group in Washington, left or right--for a genuine political movement. "As it became more successful and better known," he writes, "MoveOn's list of members grew to about 2.5 million people. It was an impressive number, but not that impressive compared with the votes one needed to be elected president."

Which is sort of like saying, sure, Moore made the most successful documentary of all time, but it doesn't matter because more people saw Spider Man 2. Oh wait, York says that.

In a bizarre chapter devoted to debunking the notion that Fahrenheit 9/11 was truly a nationwide hit, York is enraged that Moore's fans packed the theaters on opening weekend in a devious scheme "to create the sense that the movie was a phenomenon sweeping the country." Not so, says York, who spends five pages on a series of charts showing that the film did better in blue states than red ones. Of course, the statistics don't disprove Moore's box-office records or deny his success of getting played in multiplexes everywhere. It merely shows, unsurprisingly, that Fahrenheit 9/11 did better in Seattle than Dallas. (The real shocker is York's revelation that Karl Rove watched Fahrenheit 9/11 on a bootleg DVD. Call the MPAA!)

And on he goes, using the same type of distorted comparisons to impugn Robert Greenwald, director of the best-selling, low-budget documentaries Outfoxed and Uncovered, who's dismissed because he "didn't change the political climate and influence the presidential race in a land of 120 million voters." Air America's Franken is mocked for being "too sensitive" about being misquoted. And he claims the Center for American Progress is a "talking points factory" rather than a real think tank like the Heritage Foundation. He proves this by reprinting pages of headlines from The Progress Report e-newsletter and comparing them to the boring titles of Heritage documents. Case closed.

York does raise legitimate points about the questionable accounting methods of 527s like Americans Coming Together. And he calls out former campaign finance reformer George Soros, correctly summing up Soros' claim to be operating in the "common interest" as little more than "they're bad because I say they're bad, while I am good because I say I am good."

No one, even with the best intentions, can pour $27 million into a political campaign without undue influence. There should be serious concerns about whether the left can build a viable grassroots movement if it's beholden to the whims of a few rich individuals. But York only milks this dilemma to portray the entire left as a band of Hampton-summering socialites. Plus, it's hard to take him seriously as a campaign finance reform advocate when he ignores the dubious activities of his own party--with their Swift Boat Veterans and big-money bundling Rangers and Pioneers.

In fact, completely missing from the book is any detailed comparison or examination of the right. This is a fatal flaw given that the most promising elements of the "Vast Left Wing Conspiracy" are explicitly modeled on the successful tactics of the right (which, once upon a time, stole them from the left--but that's another story). After 25 years of being steamrolled, progressives are finally awakening to the need to build infrastructure, nurture intellectuals, work outside the Democratic Party without abandoning it, invest in its own media and take advantage of new technology. But you can't duplicate decades of work in just 18 months.

York claims that the "Vast Left Wing Conspiracy" failed to defeat George W. Bush because they resided "on the fringes of American political life, even though they thought they were near the middle." He concludes: "One could have a large following--say 2 or 3 million people--and still be firmly on the fringes. But it doesn't look that way from the inside. If you are running a web site or an advocacy group, the sheer size of your membership ... might convince you that your influence is enormous."

But York misses the big picture. Political change in this country doesn't come from the center. The energy, ideas and innovation originate at the fringes--right or left. Can a well-organized group of "extremists" shift the center of political debate and seize power? Well, it has happened before.

The Times Sees No Evil

The biggest news from the digital frontier may be the advent of community internet – low-cost, high-speed broadband services provided by municipal governments and community groups via local networks.

Hundreds of cities and towns – from Philadelphia and San Francisco to Granbury, Texas, and Scottsburg, Ind. – recognize broadband internet access as a public necessity, no different from water, gas or electricity. Especially in rural and underserved urban areas, community internet promises to narrow the digital divide.

Telecom and cable companies are pushing laws across the country that would restrict local competition and cut off consumer choice. This newsworthy battle finally graced the front-page of the The New York Times on Feb. 17, with a story pegged to Philadelphia's ambitious plans to turn the city into "one gigantic wireless hot spot."

The real problem with James Dao's piece wasn't its tardiness – other papers covered similar ground months ago – but the way the Times failed to question the true motivations of its sources.

The first quote in the story goes to Adam Thierer, identified as "director of telecommunications studies at the libertarian Cato Institute and the author of a soon-to-be-released study criticizing the Philadelphia plan." He tells the Times: "The last thing I'd want to see is broadband turned into a lazy public utility."

Dao fails to note that the Cato Institute is funded by Verizon, SBC Communications, Time Warner, Comcast and Freedom Communications – all companies seeking to put a stake through the heart of homegrown broadband systems. Thierer is little more than an industry sock puppet.

Dao then goes on to interview David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, who asks: "Is it fair that the industry pay tax dollars to the city that are then used to launch a network that would compete with our own?"

Fair enough. But again, Dao fails to alert readers to his source's conflicts of interest that might impugn his integrity. In a previous incarnation, Cohen served as chief of staff to then Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell. Rendell has since moved into the governor's mansion, while Cohen jumped to the private sector.

But Cohen still has Rendell's ear, which might explain why the governor ignored widespread public opposition and signed a bill into law last December that prevents other Pennsylvania communities from offering competitive broadband services. Though the Philadelphia plan secured a last-minute reprieve, the rest of the state got shafted.

And Comcast – so concerned about the spending of its tax dollars – is more than happy to take public handouts. To finance the Comcast Center, which will be Philadelphia's tallest skyscraper when it's completed in 2007, Rendell put together a state aid package worth $42.75 million. The state Department of Community and Economic Development kicked in another $12.75 million in grants and tax credits. Dao doesn't mention it.

Later Dao does give Verizon spokesman Eric Rabe the chance to remind readers that "government doesn't do service well." Tell that to the 40 percent of Philadelphians without access to broadband service.

James Dao wrote in an e-mail that he was aware of Cato's funding and David Cohen's background. "But unlike bloggers who have unlimited space, I had to make editorial choices," he writes. "This story was being relentless [sic] cut, and my choice was between retaining details about Philadelphia's program and adding asides about Cato or David Cohen's background. I went with the program details."

Dao is free to prioritize those aspects of the story he finds most important. But it's hard to understand why he would choose to downplay this unseemly tale of collusion between corporations, state government and coin-operated think tanks like Cato and the dubious New Millennium Research Council, which are at the center of a well-funded campaign to paint municipal broadband as an affront to American innovation and free enterprise.

In fact, the opposite is true. Community internet creates free-market competition, allows consumer choice, and encourages entrepreneurs through public-private partnerships. Municipal networks are proving a win-win for local politicians: They're relatively cheap to build and city officials gain points from bringing technology – and resulting economic opportunity – to neighborhoods that are often passed over by commercial providers.

As Dianah Neff, Philadelphia's chief technology officer, asked of Verizon and Comcast in a recent column for ZDNet: "When was the last time they were elected to determine what is best for our communities? If they're really concerned about what is important to all members of the community, why haven't they built this type of network that meets community needs or approached a city to use their assets to build a high-speed, low-cost, ubiquitous network?"

All good questions. Perhaps the Times should have explored them further.

Bought and Paid For

It's official: President Bush's re-election campaign is underway.

For those who haven't been paying attention -- and Bush, Cheney and their corporate cronies certainly hope you haven't -- the president officially launched his campaign at a March 20 "kickoff" rally in Orlando. "I'm looking forward to this campaign ahead," Bush told the assembled party faithful between chants of "Four more years!" and "USA! USA!" "With you at my side, there is no doubt in my mind we're headed to a victory."

Bush may claim the "political season" is just beginning, but he has spent the past nine months crisscrossing the country on a dash for cash, personally headlining 46 million-dollar fundraising events on the way to amassing an unprecedented $170 million campaign war chest. Awestruck by the sheer amount of cash on hand, the media sometimes mistake Bush's piles of money for popularity. Venality is more like it. Bush has turned the election into an auction, an invitation-only opportunity for Corporate America to prove its loyalty to the president.

The engine in Bush's money machine has been an elite regiment of 455 "Rangers" and "Pioneers," the honorary titles bestowed on fundraisers who can collect at least $200,000 or $100,000, respectively. Legally, each of these individuals is limited to a maximum donation of $2,000. But the Bush campaign has perfected a sophisticated system of bundling -- by which corporate executives, lobbyists or other insiders pool a large number of contributions to maximize their political influence. The Rangers and Pioneers have collected at least $64.2 million so far.

In return, these worthies have received access to the administration, relaxed regulations, legislative favors, targeted tax breaks, lucrative federal contracts, and plum appointments at home and abroad. But some hold more of a stake in Bush's re-election than others: The 10 industries profiled here have been among the most generous supporters of the president -- and they stand to reap the greatest rewards if Dubya prevails in November.

Bullish on Bush

Nearly one in five Rangers and Pioneers comes from the financial sector. This group of 85 bankers, stockbrokers and wealthy private investors -- which has bundled at least $12.5 million for the 2004 Bush campaign -- includes 20 top Wall Street executives. Wall Street firms account for six of the top 10 companies whose employees have donated the most to Bush this cycle.

Bush's economic policies -- particularly the sweeping dividend, capital gains and income tax cuts -- have lined Wall Street's pockets. Now the industry is leading the drive to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, endorsing administration plans to overhaul the retirement system and salivating over the prospect of Social Security privatization.

These same firms have been at the center of almost every major corporate scandal from Enron to Worldcom to Martha Stewart. Yet Wall Street is banking on Bush to muzzle watchdogs like New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and fend off further regulation of mutual funds, derivatives trading and arcane, highly profitable tax-avoidance schemes. The Wall Street Journal reported that hedge fund consultant Lee Hennessee sent out invitations to a March 11 Bush fundraiser with this message: "The current administration is favorable to the hedge fund industry, and we need to do all we can to keep them in office."

Under the Influence

Fundraising for Bush is a win-win situation for Washington lobbyists. Achieving Ranger or Pioneer status ensures insider access to the administration, which these influence-peddlers can then turn around and market to their clients. The client lists of major Bush backers read like a corporate scandal sheet -- from Boeing and Wal-Mart to Tyco and the tobacco companies.

The 55 Rangers and Pioneers registered as federal lobbyists have bundled at least $6.7 million in contributions for Bush this cycle. These same lobbyists met repeatedly with Dick Cheney's secret energy task force to do the bidding of energy interests, took millions from drug companies to help push through the Medicare bill and led the fight for Bush's tax cuts on behalf of the business community.

While the Bush campaign has produced ads attacking Senator John Kerry for being beholden to "special interests," the president has accepted more in direct contributions from lobbyists in 2003 than Kerry did in the past 15 years. "The issue is hypocrisy in saying you're going to take on the special interests, not who took the most special interest money," Bush media strategist Mark McKinnon told the Washington Post. "You don't hear the president in the Oval Office railing against the special interests."

Shocking Developers

Real estate developers, who have donated at least $32.2 million to Bush campaign efforts since 1999, have helped shape the White House's anti-environment agenda. Working closely with its developer friends and donors, the Bush administration repeatedly has attempted to weaken the protection of wetlands. And under Bush, the Endangered Species Act -- long seen as a major obstacle by developers -- is threatened with extinction.

Nowhere is the Bush administration's favoritism for developers more apparent than in Florida, home to a third of the more than three dozen Rangers and Pioneers from the real estate industry. To oversee the fragile western Everglades, President Bush appointed an EPA regional administrator who has made it nearly impossible to deny permits for developers wishing to build there. EPA biologist Bruce Boler quit after the agency endorsed a developer-financed study that concluded wetlands discharge more pollution than they absorb.

One of the developers who helped finance the study -- which implied water quality could be improved by replacing wetlands with golf courses and mansions -- is Al Hoffman, a Ranger and finance chairman of the Republican National Committee. Hoffman has described regulators as radicals "who think the world will end if they can't protect that little tree."

Power Play

In May 1999, Thomas Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute, sent a letter to his colleagues in the electric utility industry soliciting support for Bush's nascent presidential campaign. Kuhn exhorted them to include his campaign tracking number on their checks to "ensure that our industry is credited."

The industry must have earned extra credit for the $5.2 million it contributed to Bush in the 2000 election. Electric utility officials and their high-priced lobbyists served on the Bush transition team and met behind closed doors numerous times with Cheney's secret energy task force. "Just because somebody makes a campaign contribution," Cheney told the Associated Press, "doesn't mean they should be denied the opportunity to express their view to government officials."

Recommendations by the Cheney task force led to the undoing of a key clean air rule that required electric utilities to install modern anti-pollution equipment at old, coal-fired plants when they made major upgrades that significantly increased emissions. The rule change will save the utility companies billions. Bringing the plants into compliance would have reduced emissions by nearly 7 million tons annually, cutting air pollution from U.S. power plants in half.

Next on Bush's agenda was the Clear Skies initiative, which would allow the release of far more sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and airborne mercury than existing regulations -- delaying by as much as a decade cuts currently required under the Clean Air Act. Kuhn has called Clear Skies "an exciting opportunity for our industry."

The biggest prize of all for the electric utility industry may be the proposed repeal of the Public Utility Holding Company Act, which would lead to widespread deregulation and consolidation of electric utilities. Repealing PUHCA would put an estimated $1 trillion in regulated electric power generation, transmission and distribution facilities up for sale to the highest bidder. This would allow big power companies and Bush backers like Southern Co. and Cinergy to merge and expand, encouraging further Enron-style debacles.

Oil Slicksters

The Bush administration's handouts to the oil and gas industries have gone beyond a wildcatter's wildest dreams. Oil and gas companies, which gave $13.4 million to Bush campaign efforts in 2000, were welcomed in Washington with open arms. At least a dozen industry officials were named to the Bush transition team. Not surprisingly, the administration's energy policy has focused on expanding the supply of fossil fuels -- largely by opening up public lands to exploration -- rather than reducing demand through efficiency and alternative energy sources.

The centerpiece of the administration's strategy is drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, even though this precious ecosystem likely contains only enough oil to satisfy six months of U.S. demand. The Senate rejected this scheme again last year, but the administration continues to press forward. Bush's 2005 budget includes $2.4 billion in projected revenues from oil lease sales in ANWR in 2006.

In 2000, the oil and gas industry produced 41 Pioneers. But in the current cycle just a dozen industry rainmakers are on the list. They include several longtime Bush supporters from Texas such as billionaire Lee Bass and Nancy Kinder (Ken Lay's former secretary, whose husband Richard, was an ex-president of Enron). The oil goliaths such as ConocoPhillips and Exxon may be holding back until passage of the energy bill, which contains billions in industry benefits. Or perhaps these companies are keeping a lower political profile, hoping to avoid a Halliburton-like backlash.

King Coal

"You did everything you could to elect a Republican president," William Raney, director of the West Virginia Coal Association told a group of industry executives in May 2001, after the Bush administration reneged on its pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions and abandoned the Kyoto global warming treaty. "You are already seeing in his actions the payback, if you will, his gratitude for what we did."

The paybacks just kept coming. In 2002, the EPA adopted an environmentally devastating rule promoting mountaintop removal coal mining, which would allow companies to bury hundreds of miles of streams under piles of rubble. A federal judge found that the rule change was "designed simply of the benefit of the mining industry." Bush Pioneer James H. "Buck" Harless sits on the board of Massey Energy, one of the biggest practitioners of mountaintop removal mining.

An even bigger gift to the mining industry would be passage of the energy bill. Even the "slimmed down" version of the bill crafted to speed its passage still contains $7.4 billion in subsidies and tax breaks for the mining industry. Jack Gerard, head of the National Mining Association and another Bush Pioneer, told the West Virginia Coal Symposium in January that "the Energy Policy Act may well be the best opportunity the mining industry will have in our lifetimes."

Prescription for Profits

Pharmaceutical companies and their executives have spent half a billion dollars since 1999 on lobbying, campaign contributions and industry front groups in an all-out effort to prevent a Medicare prescription drug benefit that would give government the power to negotiate lower prices. Decrying "price controls" and clamoring for a "market-based" solution, the nation's drug-makers -- already the most profitable industry in the country -- have made it clear they won't tolerate any threat to their bottom line.

The Medicare bill passed by Congress and signed by Bush last fall is tailor-made to their interests. Projected to cost taxpayers at least $530 billion over 10 years, the bill greatly expands the customer base for the pharmaceutical giants but ensures that the prescription drug benefit will be administered by private companies. In fact, the bill expressly prohibits the government from negotiating lower prices.

The drug industry also has aggressively opposed the "re-importation" of less expensively priced drugs from Canada. Pfizer, whose CEO Hank McKinnell is a Ranger, has threatened to blacklist any Canadian pharmacy that sells drugs to Americans. The Bush administration has marched in lockstep with the drug-makers, insisting drugs from Canada pose a risk to public safety. Yet when pressed by Congress to substantiate these claims, one top FDA official admitted, "We have very little evidence."

The real danger, it seems, is to drug company profit margins.

Bad for Your Healthcare

Executives in managed care, hospitals and nursing homes also stand to profit from the massive Medicare package, which promises them additional billions. For example, managed-care companies like UnitedHealth -- which is headed by Pioneer William McGuire -- will take in at least an extra $14.2 billion over 10 years in payments designed to entice them to offer drug coverage, according to the Congressional Budget Office. And Medicare revenues for managed-care companies are expected to increase six-fold from $37 billion in 2003 to $226 billion by 2010.

Meanwhile, the president is pushing federal medical malpractice legislation, which would insulate healthcare providers from the costs of their own negligence by limiting court awards to patients, especially those who have been catastrophically injured. Charles "Chip" Kahn III, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, told the National Journal: "Medical-malpractice reform is a mountaintop issue for our members. That's why people were motivated and why we were successful" at soliciting enough campaign contributions to become a Pioneer.

Bush's push for medical malpractice legislation also earns him points with doctors' groups and nursing homes. Consider the potential benefits to Ranger W. Andrew Adams, president of the nursing home chain National Healthcare Corp. When it comes to negligence and liability, Adams has obvious concerns: As of June 2003, his company faced at least 87 personal injury or wrongful death lawsuits -- including 46 suits in Florida alone, where the company was forced to close up shop after its insurer canceled its liability policy. More lawsuits may be on the way: A fire in September killed 14 residents in a company facility in Nashville that had not been equipped with sprinklers.

Unfairness Inc.

Tort reform also is a top priority of the insurance industry, which has given more than $12 million to Bush's federal campaigns. The Class Action Fairness Act -- a Bush-backed bill now held up in the Senate -- would help insurance companies and their corporate clients by pushing more cases from state to federal courts, where judges are far more likely to avoid certifying class action lawsuits.

Of the nine insurance companies with Bush Pioneers, at least seven have faced potential class-action suits for illegally denying claims for necessary medical treatments, using misleading sales practices, deceiving shareholders, retaliating against internal whistleblowers, and even failing to pay benefits on policies held by Holocaust victims.

None of this fazes Bush, who has praised the industry for working "long and hard" on the tort reform issue. As one official boasted to an industry trade magazine, "Any time the president of the United States uses his bully pulpit to remind the American people that an out-of-control legal system hurts consumers -- that is a good day."

Media Monopolies

On February 2, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) swung into action, promising a "thorough and swift" investigation of a burgeoning national media calamity: Janet Jackson's Super Bowl striptease.

For his part, President Bush claimed he dozed off during the second quarter and missed all the excitement. Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" may have garnered all the headlines, but the real outrage at the FCC under Bush has been the nonstop deregulation and unfettered consolidation of the companies controlling the airwaves. On these issues, the president hoped to catch the public napping.

Yet the FCC decision to allow one company to own television stations reaching up to 45 percent of the U.S. viewing public was second only to the Iraq war in the number of complaints received on Capitol Hill last year. Eventually, the White House signed off on a "compromise" ownership cap of 39 percent -- just enough to ensure that neither News Corp. nor Viacom would have to sell any stations.

But returning Bush to office -- and thus preserving the 3-to-2 Republican majority at the FCC -- is crucial for the next round of media mega-mergers to win approval. After all, that narrow 3-to-2 margin made possible the controversial $3 billion merger of Univision and Hispanic Broadcasting. Univision Chairman and CEO Jerry Perenchio, a Pioneer, profited handsomely from the deal, which combined his television network with the country's largest Spanish-language radio network.

But the Univision merger was small potatoes compared to Comcast's plans for media domination. On February 11, the country's largest provider of cable TV and broadband Internet services made an unsolicited offer to buy Walt Disney for $47.8 billion. If the deal goes through, it would create the largest media company in the world. Comcast Cable President Stephen Burke already has raised $200,000 for Bush's re-election.

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Public Citizen report 'Bush's Campaign Ads ... Brought to You by Special Interests,' which is available in full at WhiteHouseForSale.org. Craig Aaron is a senior editor at In These Times and an investigative reporter for Public Citizen's Congress Watch and www.WhiteHouseForSale.org.

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