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A Message from Sen. Barack Obama

Cross-posted from Senator Barack Obama's blog:

There is one way, over the long haul, to guarantee the appointment of judges that are sensitive to issues of social justice, and that is to win the right to appoint them by recapturing the presidency and the Senate. And I don't believe we get there by vilifying good allies, with a lifetime record of battling for progressive causes, over one vote or position. I am convinced that, our mutual frustrations and strongly-held beliefs notwithstanding, the strategy driving much of Democratic advocacy, and the tone of much of our rhetoric, is an impediment to creating a workable progressive majority in this country.

According to the storyline that drives many advocacy groups and Democratic activists -- a storyline often reflected in comments on this blog -- we are up against a sharply partisan, radically conservative, take-no-prisoners Republican party. They have beaten us twice by energizing their base with red meat rhetoric and single-minded devotion and discipline to their agenda. In order to beat them, it is necessary for Democrats to get some backbone, give as good as they get, brook no compromise, drive out Democrats who are interested in "appeasing" the right wing, and enforce a more clearly progressive agenda. The country, finally knowing what we stand for and seeing a sharp contrast, will rally to our side and thereby usher in a new progressive era.

I think this perspective misreads the American people. From traveling throughout Illinois and more recently around the country, I can tell you that Americans are suspicious of labels and suspicious of jargon. They don't think George Bush is mean-spirited or prejudiced, but have become aware that his administration is irresponsible and often incompetent. They don't think that corporations are inherently evil (a lot of them work in corporations), but they recognize that big business, unchecked, can fix the game to the detriment of working people and small entrepreneurs. They don't think America is an imperialist brute, but are angry that the case to invade Iraq was exaggerated, are worried that we have unnecessarily alienated existing and potential allies around the world, and are ashamed by events like those at Abu Ghraib which violate our ideals as a country.

It's this non-ideological lens through which much of the country viewed Judge Roberts' confirmation hearings. A majority of folks, including a number of Democrats and Independents, don't think that John Roberts is an ideologue bent on overturning every vestige of civil rights and civil liberties protections in our possession. Instead, they have good reason to believe he is a conservative judge who is (like it or not) within the mainstream of American jurisprudence, a judge appointed by a conservative president who could have done much worse (and probably, I fear, may do worse with the next nominee). While they hope Roberts doesn't swing the court too sharply to the right, a majority of Americans think that the President should probably get the benefit of the doubt on a clearly qualified nominee.

A plausible argument can be made that too much is at stake here and now, in terms of privacy issues, civil rights, and civil liberties, to give John Roberts the benefit of the doubt. That certainly was the operating assumption of the advocacy groups involved in the nomination battle.

I shared enough of these concerns that I voted against Roberts on the floor this morning. But short of mounting an all-out filibuster--a quixotic fight I would not have supported; a fight I believe Democrats would have lost both in the Senate and in the court of public opinion; a fight that would have been difficult for Democratic senators defending seats in states like North Dakota and Nebraska that are essential for Democrats to hold if we hope to recapture the majority; and a fight that would have effectively signaled an unwillingness on the part of Democrats to confirm any Bush nominee, an unwillingness which I believe would have set a dangerous precedent for future administrations--blocking Roberts was not a realistic option.

In such circumstances, attacks on Pat Leahy, Russ Feingold and the other Democrats who, after careful consideration, voted for Roberts make no sense. Russ Feingold, the only Democrat to vote not only against war in Iraq but also against the Patriot Act, doesn't become complicit in the erosion of civil liberties simply because he chooses to abide by a deeply held and legitimate view that a President, having won a popular election, is entitled to some benefit of the doubt when it comes to judicial appointments. Like it or not, that view has pretty strong support in the Constitution's design.

The same principle holds with respect to issues other than judicial nominations. My colleague from Illinois, Dick Durbin, spoke out forcefully -- and voted against -- the Iraqi invasion. He isn't somehow transformed into a "war supporter" -- as I've heard some anti-war activists suggest -- just because he hasn't called for an immediate withdrawal of American troops. He may be simply trying to figure out, as I am, how to ensure that U.S. troop withdrawals occur in such a way that we avoid all-out Iraqi civil war, chaos in the Middle East, and much more costly and deadly interventions down the road. A pro-choice Democrat doesn't become anti-choice because he or she isn't absolutely convinced that a twelve-year-old girl should be able to get an operation without a parent being notified. A pro-civil rights Democrat doesn't become complicit in an anti-civil rights agenda because he or she questions the efficacy of certain affirmative action programs. And a pro-union Democrat doesn't become anti-union if he or she makes a determination that on balance, CAFTA will help American workers more than it will harm them.

Or to make the point differently: How can we ask Republican senators to resist pressure from their right wing and vote against flawed appointees like John Bolton, if we engage in similar rhetoric against Democrats who dissent from our own party line? How can we expect Republican moderates who are concerned about the nation's fiscal meltdown to ignore Grover Norquist's threats if we make similar threats to those who buck our party orthodoxy?

I am not drawing a facile equivalence here between progressive advocacy groups and right-wing advocacy groups. The consequences of their ideas are vastly different. Fighting on behalf of the poor and the vulnerable is not the same as fighting for homophobia and Halliburton. But to the degree that we brook no dissent within the Democratic Party, and demand fealty to the one, "true" progressive vision for the country, we risk the very thoughtfulness and openness to new ideas that are required to move this country forward. When we lash out at those who share our fundamental values because they have not met the criteria of every single item on our progressive "checklist," then we are essentially preventing them from thinking in new ways about problems. We are tying them up in a straightjacket and forcing them into a conversation only with the converted.

Beyond that, by applying such tests, we are hamstringing our ability to build a majority. We won't be able to transform the country with such a polarized electorate. Because the truth of the matter is this: Most of the issues this country faces are hard. They require tough choices, and they require sacrifice. The Bush Administration and the Republican Congress may have made the problems worse, but they won't go away after President Bush is gone. Unless we are open to new ideas, and not just new packaging, we won't change enough hearts and minds to initiate a serious energy or fiscal policy that calls for serious sacrifice. We won't have the popular support to craft a foreign policy that meets the challenges of globalization or terrorism while avoiding isolationism and protecting civil liberties. We certainly won't have a mandate to overhaul a health care policy that overcomes all the entrenched interests that are the legacy of a jerry-rigged health care system. And we won't have the broad political support, or the effective strategies, required to lift large numbers of our fellow citizens out of numbing poverty.

The bottom line is that our job is harder than the conservatives' job. After all, it's easy to articulate a belligerent foreign policy based solely on unilateral military action, a policy that sounds tough and acts dumb; it's harder to craft a foreign policy that's tough and smart. It's easy to dismantle government safety nets; it's harder to transform those safety nets so that they work for people and can be paid for. It's easy to embrace a theological absolutism; it's harder to find the right balance between the legitimate role of faith in our lives and the demands of our civic religion. But that's our job. And I firmly believe that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, or oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.

Let me be clear: I am not arguing that the Democrats should trim their sails and be more "centrist." In fact, I think the whole "centrist" versus "liberal" labels that continue to characterize the debate within the Democratic Party misses the mark. Too often, the "centrist" label seems to mean compromise for compromise sake, whereas on issues like health care, energy, education and tackling poverty, I don't think Democrats have been bold enough. But I do think that being bold involves more than just putting more money into existing programs and will instead require us to admit that some existing programs and policies don't work very well. And further, it will require us to innovate and experiment with whatever ideas hold promise (including market- or faith-based ideas that originate from Republicans).

Our goal should be to stick to our guns on those core values that make this country great, show a spirit of flexibility and sustained attention that can achieve those goals, and try to create the sort of serious, adult, consensus around our problems that can admit Democrats, Republicans and Independents of good will. This is more than just a matter of "framing," although clarity of language, thought, and heart are required. It's a matter of actually having faith in the American people's ability to hear a real and authentic debate about the issues that matter.

Finally, I am not arguing that we "unilaterally disarm" in the face of Republican attacks, or bite our tongue when this Administration screws up. Whenever they are wrong, inept, or dishonest, we should say so clearly and repeatedly; and whenever they gear up their attack machine, we should respond quickly and forcefully. I am suggesting that the tone we take matters, and that truth, as best we know it, be the hallmark of our response.

My dear friend Paul Simon used to consistently win the votes of much more conservative voters in Southern Illinois because he had mastered the art of "disagreeing without being disagreeable," and they trusted him to tell the truth. Similarly, one of Paul Wellstone's greatest strengths was his ability to deliver a scathing rebuke of the Republicans without ever losing his sense of humor and affability. In fact, I would argue that the most powerful voices of change in the country, from Lincoln to King, have been those who can speak with the utmost conviction about the great issues of the day without ever belittling those who opposed them, and without denying the limits of their own perspectives.

In that spirit, let me end by saying I don't pretend to have all the answers to the challenges we face, and I look forward to periodic conversations with all of you in the months and years to come. I trust that you will continue to let me and other Democrats know when you believe we are screwing up. And I, in turn, will always try and show you the respect and candor one owes his friends and allies. (Cross-posted on the Senate blog: http://obama.senate.gov/blog/.)

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GOP Response to Katrina: Cut Programs for the Poor

President Bush and the GOP controlled Congress -- using Hurricane Katrina reconstruction efforts as an exuse, are proposing to cut many of the programs that thousands of the hurricane survivors are relying on to recover and rebuild.

The proposal includes cutting $35 billion from non-military spending -- including food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, and even a 2.5% across the board cut to ALL farm subsidies.

Add this to the rollback on laws that guarantee fair wages for workers and encourage the hiring of women and minority owned businesses. In fact, many minority owned businesses in the Gulf Coast have been left out of the bidding process of the re-building effort while Bush's cronies have scooped up no-bid contracts.

Now is not the time to be cutting the legs out from under those that are in the most need. We already have an additional million people living in poverty since this President took office -- BEFORE Katrina.

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Burr in Heineman's Britches

Tuesday, Governor Heineman told the press that the Hergert investigation should end, and the Legislature should move on to other topics. Oh really? I wonder why our appointed Governor who's running for election wants this scandal to go away

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Open Thread

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"Why Are You A Democrat?" (Day 9)

I am mixing things up a little bit today. Norma Fleisher decided to respond to our request for stories and testimonials a little differently. After you read it, share with us what you think is worth fighting for.
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Instead of answering the above question, I am going to answer "What is worth fighting for?

In an article on August 4th, in the New York Times, Jim Wallis verbalized my exact feelings. Some of the following observations will be in my words, most will be in his.

First, somebody must lead on the issue of poverty, and right now neither party is doing so. The Democrats assume the poverty issue belongs to them, but with the exception of John Edwards in his 2004 campaign, they haven't mustered the gumption to oppose a government that habitually favors the wealthy over everyone else. Democrats need new policies to offer the 36 million Americans, including 13 million children, who live below the poverty line, as well as the 9.8 million families one recent study identified as "working hard but falling short."

The Democrats should draw a line in the sand when it comes to wartime tax cuts for the wealthy, rising deficits, and the slashing of programs for low-income families and children. They need proposals that combine to create a "living family income" for wage-earners, as well as a platform of "fair trade" as opposed to just free trade, in the global economy. Such proposals would cause a break with many of the Democrats' powerful corporate sponsors, but they would open the way for a truly progressive economic agenda. Many Americans, including religious voters who see poverty as a compelling issue of conscience, desire such a platform

Similarly, a growing number of American Christians speak of the environment as a religious concern---one of stewardship of God's creation. The National Association of Evangelicals recently called global warming a faith issue. But Republicans consistently choose oil and gas interest over a cleaner world. The Democrats need to call for the reversal of these priorities. They must insist that private interests should never obstruct our country's path to a cleaner and more efficient energy future, let alone hold our foreign policy hostage to the dictates of repressive regimes in the Middle East.

On the issues that Republicans have turned into election-winning "wedges", Democrats will win back "values voters" only with fresh ideas. Abortion is one such case. Democrats need to think past catchphrases, like "a woman's right to choose," or the alternative, "safe, legal and rare." More than l million abortions are performed every year in this country. The Democrats should set forth proposals that aim to reduce that number by at least half. Such a campaign could emphasize adoption reform, health care, and child care; combating teenage pregnancy and sexual abuse; improving poor and working women's incomes; and supporting reasonable restrictions on abortion, like parental notification for minors ( with necessary legal protection against parental abuse). Such a program could help create some much-needed common ground.

As for "family values,

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"Why Are You A Democrat?" (Day 8)

Here are a few more great reasons to be proud to be a Democrat.

As an educator I continue to see public education taking a back seat to profit. My only hope for the education of our young people is through the Democratic Party. As a veteran that has endured the Reagan Administration's attack on my benefits my only hope for representation is through the Democratic Party. As a citizen of the United States I have lived through the lies and spins of the Bush Administration, coming to realize that the only hope I have left as an American is the Democratic.

-Daryl Harrison
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I am a Democrat because there is a role in our society for an effective government: not big government, not small government, an effective government. I define effective government as one which meets the needs of those it governs. My party is my societal partner, an entity I can control, trust, and prioritize. Nebraska Democrats stand for effective government.

I also am a Democrat because I believe the Nebraska Democratic Party believes in protecting civil rights for all people and that everyone in Nebraska deserves a decent home, free of slum lords, without lead based paint which harms young children, in a home that is in a safe, diversified neighborhood with grocery stores and banks and other ammenties offered/available to persons in more affluent areas of Omaha.

I also am a Democrat because I believe the Democratic Party supports the working family by supporting unions and good working conditions for all employees with a decent wage. I am a Democrat because I know the Nebraska Democrats do not favor large corporations. This does not mean they do not support business, they do, but they support businesses who add to Nebraska's people and environment, not take away from the environment or working families.

I am a Nebraska Democrat because I remember when Nebraska schools were at the top of the list. Now Nebraska teachers are paid at the bottom 1/5 of all states in the nation. We need to put money into true family values. The Democratic and American values of quality education, a clean environment for the benefit of our children and our children's children, a living wage for all workers to enable them to live in decent housing in safe neighborhoods.

I am also a Nebraska Democrat because I want to encourage the family farmer not the mega farm coporations that spoil the land with huge feed lots and inhumane treatment of farm animals. The traditional family farmer has respect for the land and is a good steward of their land.

I am a Nebraska Democrat because I support a national health program that truly provides health care to all citizens and removes this burden from business and show the world that the United Sates and sensible Nebraskas know basic health care is a human right.

-Sandy Baxter

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John McCain Jr.?

Check out this article on John McCain Jr. (aka Chuck Hagel) on a right wing website.

http://www.therealitycheck.org/GuestColumnist/dpatton042605.htm

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On the Road: Cass County

I met with people from across Cass County to brainstorm ways to best organize our Democrats there. Julie Baer, the Cass County Chair, spoke to the group about the need to involve everyone in their community -- regardless of age, social status, or profession. As a result, the group decided to hold a Fall BBQ near Plattsmouth on October 22. You can RSVP here. It should be a wonderful event with activities for all ages.

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"Why Are You A Democrat?" (Day 7)

It's a new week, a new month and time to re-energize ourselves by reading a few more stories about why we are Democrats:

On my refrigerator is a small piece cut from the newspaper, which
says:

"Hubert Humphrey said: "The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life--the sick, the needy, the handicapped." Bush seems to think they're all targets.

That is why I am a Democrat in Nebraska.

-Shirley A. Ritter
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I have always been a Democrat because this is the party that cares about what happens to people and focuses considers issues affecting families, children, the economy and jobs, health care, the environment and our quality of life in general, for us now and for the next generation. The Democratic party reaches out to all people, from different backgrounds, different ethnicities, and a wide range of persoal values. It is the party of inclusion, not exclusion. Individual Democrats may differ on individual issues but we know that our core values are centered in the community and the people who make up that community.

-Donna Bolz
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I'm a Nebraska Democrat because I believe that adequate health care is a right, not a privilege. Equal opportunity should be a reality, not a joke. We need to preserve and conserve what is left of our environment and wildlife, rather than weighing it against what is "good for business". We need leaders who care about the welfare of ALL CITIZENS, not just their "base" of the "haves and have mores". Each citizen should have equal opportunities and access to education, health care, housing, and the American dream.

-Melanie Baker McCain
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My father was an FDR Democrat, but thats not why I am a proud Liberal Democrat. I believed in the ideals of John F. Kennedy, even though I was only 7 when he was killed. I campaigned (in my little town of Phillips, NE.) for Bobby Kennedy, even though I was only 12 when he was killed. I was taught at an early age that people not only give their lives for their country in war, but also give their lives as public servants, so that these; the weakest, poorest, oldest, disabled, immigrant, minorities and so many others have a voice in our great Democratic Republic. I'm a third generation American and a third generation Democrat, because Democrats put people, before things. I am a Kennedy Democrat!

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Judging Meirs

This morning, President Bush nominated his White House Counsel, Harriet Miers, to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Miers is not a sitting judge, and therefore does not have much of a public record for Senators to scrutinize. There have been several Justices throughout U.S. history that had no prior judicial experience.

Do you think it was wise for the President to nominate someone who has never presided over a courtroom?

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