9.04.2004

To Have and To Hold
By Anna Schwartz

In the early 1990s, pundits and politicians warned of the forthcoming "culture wars," in which the traditional values of middle America would be pitted against those of the coastal liberal elite – a fight to the death, these experts warned, and one which would fundamentally alienate both sides, causing a decisive split in the American polity. In the era of Newt Gingrich and the Contract With America, the battle raged, as those so-called traditional values had found representation in Washington. The Republican party, reeling from its 1992 loss of the White House – the first in 12 years – made a concerted effort to win over voters concerned with the erosion of conservative social values. The marriage of fiscal and social conservatism has always been troubled, and now it seems headed for divorce (that is, if the social conservatives don’t attempt a constitutional ban on that as well). Vice President Dick Cheney’s remarks last week in support of states’ rights to define marriage demonstrate that strain.

The cornerstone of conservative thought in the United States’ history has been states’ rights – the idea that the federal government should stay out of the affairs of the states in any and all possible ways. In opining that it should be up to the states to define the parameters of marriage, Dick Cheney conforms to a strand of thought with roots as deep as The Federalist Papers. Fiscal conservatives, concerned with limiting the purview of the federal government in terms of the liabilities of the budget, see no inconsistency in Cheney’s position about gay marriage.

A recent study by the Congressional Budget Office shows that the impact of permitting same-sex marriage would be a positive one for the federal budget. With the budget strain of this administration’s foreign policy-decisionmaking – the liberation of Iraq did not come cheaply – the $400 million per year in savings for the federal government is hardly chump change. The problem with this study, however, is that it fails to account for the fact that feelings about same-sex marriage are not economically motivated. None of the anti-gay-marriage protestors who set up shop outside the Massachusetts state house earlier this year carried signs or chanted slogans having to do with taxes: the polemic "God hates fags," a perennial favorite of the protestors, relies not on Congressional Budget Office findings, but – purportedly -- on the bible.

It is not the business of the government, however, to legislate feelings. The same principle in the constitution that guarantees the separation of church and state should inform the politics of marriage: it is not the government’s business which God one worships, or which gender one marries. In an ideal world, the social conservatives that comprise a large part of the Republican "base" would understand and accept that logic. In reality, however, these voters have expressed outrage at the position expressed by the Vice President.

Cheney’s remarks may have been an intentional distraction from the administration’s adoption of a hard-line on the issue (one which may alienate precious swing voters), but it is nonetheless an articulation of a commonly-held position, made personal by the fact that Cheney’s daughter, Mary, is a lesbian. Cheney also has nothing to lose – if re-elected, this will be his last term in office – and his decision to diverge from the party line will not cost him his nomination.

The base of socially-conservative voters lack political representation other than that of the Republican party, and thus it is natural that they expressed outrage at Cheney’s remarks. But since these voters will check the box for Bush anyway, the Republican powers-that-be should re-evaluate whether it is necessary or logically consistent to respond to their outrage. Ultimately, however, Cheney is right – constitutionally and morally – that "freedom means freedom for everyone."
A Lesser of Two Evils
By Eric Lorber

This week, at the cost of hundreds of Mehdi army militiamen and dozens of Iraqi government soldiers, Iraqi forces secured the most sacred site in Shia Islam, the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf. Although government forces have achieved control of the mosque complex, the question remains, have they silenced Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi army for good? What does it mean that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the respected Shia cleric, brokered the peace deal, and not the Iraqi government? Is this resolution the first step towards a more stable, less violent Iraq?

A concrete resolution was necessary to ensure that al-Sadr’s Mehdi army could not challenge the sovereignty of the fledging government. Al-Sadr could not have been allowed to maintain control of Najaf, a Shiite stronghold, because it would fracture the country along sectarian lines. If Najaf remained as an independent fiefdom, where the Iraqi government did not exercise control, then the goal of both the United States and Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to create an Iraqi government that encompasses Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish populations would be impossible. In addition, the last time the United States and the Iraqi government confronted the Mehdi army two months ago, they backed down to avoid an outcry of public dissent for taking action that could jeopardize the Imam Ali Shrine. The militia used the period between the current flair in fighting to rebuild its arsenal and organization. The U.S. and Iraqi governments could not accept anything short of complete disarmament and disbanding of the army this time around for fear that history would repeat itself and al-Sadr would use the reprieve to once again build his forces. Finally, action had to be taken to avoid the Fallujah syndrome: leaving an ungoverned region where extremism could breed.

The immediate crisis seems to be over, as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, a rival of al-Sadr, brokered a peace treaty that provided al-Sadr immunity from an indictment that he murdered a rival cleric Abdel-Majid al-Khoei last year. In addition, the Mehdi army, already reeling from a sustained siege of the city, has disbanded and its members have retreated, returning to their jobs and routines in Najaf.

Far from being a rosy picture of a conflict resolved without a final siege of the Imam Ali Mosque (which would have caused an uproar in Iraq and the Muslim world), al-Sadr and his Mehdi army remain an influential force in the region. First, in an interview with an Iraqi government spokesperson, the immunity granted to al-Sadr appears tenuous. The immunity from charges will last only as long as the interim government remains in power; when elections come next year. This has serious implications for al-Sadr’s future actions. If he fears being jailed despite the immediate promise of immunity, it is quite conceivable that he will attempt to rally his supporters to his cause once again. In addition, although the Mehdi army has been disbanded, they are by no means gone. They have retreated into the houses and business of Najaf. They have given up their weapons, but not their ideas nor their support of al-Sadr’s politically active version of Shia Islam. Al-Sadr could easily reorganize this force if his power or freedom was threatened. It is also important to note that, while the fighting has ended in Najaf, the Mehdi army continues to operate in the Sadr section of Baghdad and other cities throughout the country. The threat al-Sadr poses to the Iraqi government is far from over.

Beyond this unvanquished threat, the brokering of peace in Najaf has created a super-empowered religious leader in al-Sistani. The Shia Cleric, already well respected by both Iraqi and Iranian Shiites, has proven himself more powerful and capable than both the United States and the Iraqi Government; he ended the Najaf standoff non-violently when the others could not. The question arises, have attempted to remove al-Sadr from a position of influence only to replace him with another fundamentalist cleric?

At first glance, al-Sistani appears to be a far cry from al-Sadr; he is an elder, extremely well respected and relatively moderate cleric where al-Sadr is young, firebrand and fanatical. Al-Sistani also comes from the Quietist school of thought, a Shia school that believes clerics should advise leaders but not actively engage in politics. Al-Sadr, on the other hand, takes the Khomeini approach: religious leaders should be political leaders. However, looking at al-Sistani’s words leads one to be nervous about acquiescing such power to him: he wants to create an independent Shia state in Iraq. In addition, his ties to Iran are troubling. Al-Sistani is Iranian-born and continues to maintain close contacts with the Iranian government and people. Although more moderate than al-Sadr these ties and his stated objective to create a Shia state in Iraq indicate that the United States and the Iraqi government might conflict with al-Sistani in the future. Now that al-Sistani has proven himself to be more affective than either the United States or the Iraqi government, it is possible that Iraqi Shiites will support him and not the current government.

The Iraqi government now controls Najaf, but at what cost? A temporary disbanding of the Mehdi army, the failure to bring al-Sadr to justice, and the empowerment of an individual with objectives contradictory to the goals of the government. In the Imam Ali Mosque, gunfire has quelled and replaced with prayer, but at a cost that was far too high.
Texas Hold ‘em
By Steven O'Brien

Organizations known as 527s have become the big issue on the campaign trail. The harsh ads created by Moveon.org, were beneficial to Kerry and a clear attempt at damaging the credibility of the president. Recently the right struck back with ads by a small group known as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that attacked the credibility of Kerry’s war career upon which he has based his campaign. The accuracy of each group’s ads is questionable. Dirty politics are in season and the camp that wins this battle may win the White House. Now that the smoke has cleared, Bush is sitting pretty and Kerry is wondering how someone who cannot pronounce the word ”nuclear” may have just locked him out of the White House.

No one had Bush pegged as a tactician, but what he has accomplished over the past two weeks has been a dazzling political display. The battle started when Moveon.org came up with a malicious ad directed at George Bush. The Bush campaign, instead of reacting immediately, sat back and absorbed the blow, allowing Bush’s ratings to slip. The fall continued as Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11 struck gold at the box office. Yet, the Bush camp remained quiet even as the blatant lies in the film hurt his rating. At some point, Moore even had to issue an apology for changing a headline of a newspaper in the film and distorting information to negatively implicate the president, all of which slid under the media radar. Bush’s approval slid until the Democratic National Convention when Kerry did not get the boost expected. From there, the momentum shifted in the incumbent’s direction. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth unexpectedly hit Kerry with negative ads and published a book questioning his service, Unfit for Command, which currently occupies the number one spot on the NY Times Best Seller list.

The Kerry camp’s response to this concern has been pathetic. He first sent out his lawyers who threatened TV stations and bookstores with groundless lawsuits if they aired the ads and sold the book. Then he searched for connections between the Bush campaign and the Swift Boat Veterans. The first casualty was Bush campaign attorney Benjamin Ginsberg, who resigned when he admitted to advising the Swift Boat Veterans while concurrently working with the Bush-Cheney campaign. In contrast, Joe Sandler, general counsel to the Democratic National Committee, felt no need to resign after serving as legal counsel to both Moveon.org and Moving America Forward. Kerry’s next move was to try to get Bush to denounce the Veterans group and their ads. The Bush camp, seizing the opportunity, woke and responded by saying they would happily denounce all 527 groups. Why has Kerry not agreed? The answer is simple; his entire campaign is funded by them.

Republicans from Texas tend to have unlimited funds. The soft money from the Swift Boat Vets only represents a minuscule amount of Bush’s finances. On the other hand, Kerry is dependent on the money he gets from 527s with deep pockets in the form of supporters like George Soros. It is almost as if the Bush camp had this planned all along. They made a point of never questioning Kerry’s military record and remained quiet when a response seemed necessary. Now Kerry is stuck, having made his bed with soft money. However, if he plans to sleep in it, he has to let the Vets stay. If the 527s go, so does Kerry’s campaign financing. Like it or not, Bush beat Kerry at his own game and may be a little craftier than we thought.

Now watch him hit that drive.
Ad Nauseum
By Jermaine Smith

The lingering effects of war in Iraq. An economy on a roller coaster of peaks and valleys. The loss of jobs overseas. The growing menace of terror. These are the issues troubling America as we approach the presidential election in November. Unfortunately, rather than addressing the nation’s concerns, our Democratic candidate is playing a game of he said/he said.

An anti-John Kerry ad run by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT) sparked a firestorm of accusations and complaints when it charged that Kerry, oft-noted for his Vietnam service, denounced the actions in Vietnam after returning from combat, in addition to lying to get both his Bronze Star and Purple Heart. The Kerry camp responded swiftly, denying the allegations and calling on President Bush to condemn the ads. After initially ignoring the request entirely, President Bush did criticize general ads, but not that of the SBVT specifically; a fact not overlooked by the Kerry campaign.

Kerry’s campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, claiming that the SBVT ads were illegally coordinated with Republicans and the Bush-Cheney campaign. The Bush campaign, however, claims not only that the ad was independent, but also that retired Air Force Colonel Ken Cordier, a campaign advisor, appeared in the ad without the knowledge of the campaign. True or not, Bush has since urged both Kerry and Senator John McCain to condemn both anti-Kerry and anti-Bush ads created by “527” groups (527 referring the federal provision that makes the groups tax exempt and allows them to receive unlimited donations). The Kerry camp has not responded to the president’s request. With all of the back and forth, it is difficult to place blame on one side or another. Perhaps the Bush campaign is making use of 527 groups for re-election, and perhaps Kerry is going too far in requesting President Bush condemn independently-run partisan groups.

This, however, is not the first use of negative campaigning in this election year or any other year, for that matter. In April, the Bush campaign accused the Kerry camp of also working with 527 groups running anti-Bush ads. Not surprisingly, Kerry denied the allegations. However, negative advertising has been a staple of political campaigning for all of recent memory. It is no surprise that negative ads, third party or otherwise, have diluted the election process. This election, regarded by some as the most significant in several decades, is no exception to the rule. Damaging commercials are tactless, but the focus on them is absurd.

The problem is that the Democrats are concentrating on the ads, and not the issues. While Kerry makes his case with the FEC and pleads with President Bush to condemn the Swift Boat Veterans, President Bush can avoid concerns such as the raise in poverty. After President Bush denounced the ads of all 527 groups, Kerry should have walked away from the matter and accepted the response. The Democrats’ obsession with negative campaigning may be working against them.

As John Kerry and his campaign advisors scramble to link 527 groups to the Bush campaign, the race remains tight. At this rate, President Bush need do little more than rest on his laurels and await his re-election in November. Recent polls show the incumbent has a 50-47 lead, certainly not a wide gap but enough to retain the presidency. In fact, most polls show that topics in which Kerry had overtaken Bush near the Democratic National Convention are sliding back in favor of the president. These questions, largely related to homeland security and Iraq, are the issues Kerry must address if he hopes to oust Bush from the White House.

America bases elections on personal values. Americans value strength. Americans value responsibility. Americans value honesty. Currently, our politicians value themselves above all else, and this trivial quarrel proves that fact. Once John Kerry finishes attempting to tout himself as the pure saint in this election and gets back to the issues, maybe we can sneak those other values into our election, as well.