Status quo needs help

Tom Daschle is looking for a few more good senators. Today the Senate is divided 50-49-1, with independent Jim Jeffords siding with the Democrats, which is why Daschle is majority leader, more or less calling the shots and making life difficult for George W. Bush. Dubya, you see, likes bipartisanship only as long as everybody agrees with him.

This year the Democrats are defending 14 Senate seats while Republicans defend 20. Of those, Democrats expect to seriously contest 13 seats now held by Republicans. They include Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

Republicans are targeting Democratic seats in South Dakota, where US Rep. John Thune is challenging Sen. Tim Johnson; Minnesota, where party-switching former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman is challenging Sen. Paul Wellstone; Missouri, where former US Rep. Jim Talent challenges Sen. Jean Carnahan; New Jersey, with a three-way primary to challenge Sen. Bob Toricelli; and Georgia, where Saxby Chambliss challenges Sen. Max Cleland. Republicans also are targeting Iowa, where US Rep. Greg Ganske is expected to challenge Tom Harkin, although supporters of farmer Bill Salier are furious at the D.C. intervention into the Iowa GOP primary on behalf of Ganske; and Montana, where Republicans were unable to come up with a top-line challenger for Max Baucus but expect to still give him a fight with state Sen. Mike Taylor

The best opportunities for Democrats include:

• Arkansas, where a messy divorce embarrassed family values Sen. Tim Hutchinson. He beat a primary challenger May 21 but faces Democratic Attorney General Mark Pryor in November;

• Colorado, where former US Attorney Tom Strickland is said to be within striking distance of Sen. Wayne Allard;

• Maine, where former state Sen. Chellie Pingree faces Republican Sen. Susan Collins;

• New Hampshire, where Democratic Gov. Jean Shaheen takes on the winner of the John Sununu Jr./Bob Smith primary for Smith's seat;

• Oregon, where Democrat Secretary of State Bill Bradbury takes on Gordon Smith;

• Texas, where Ron Kirk, former Dallas mayor and the state's first black Democratic Senate nominee, faces John Cornyn, the colorless "Enron conservative" Republican attorney general, for Phil Gramm's old seat.

Other races to watch include Kentucky, where Sen. Mitch McConnell (R), the protector of plutocracy in the campaign reform battle, faces Lois Weinberg, daughter of former Gov. Bert Combs; New Mexico, where former FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristiani (D) challenges Sen. Pete Dominici (R); North Carolina, where the RNC tried to anoint Elizabeth Dole to succeed Jesse Helms, but she has been ducking debates as well as the press and still faces a Republican primary and the winner of the Democratic primary for Jesse Helms' old seat; Oklahoma, where former Gov. David Walters (D) challenges Jim Inhofe (R); South Carolina, where former state Sen. Alex Sanders (D), a populist trial lawyer, faces US Rep. Lindsey Graham (R) for Strom Thurmond's old seat; and Tennessee, where former Gov. Lamar Alexander faces a GOP primary before he gets to US Rep. Bob Clement (D) for Fred Thompson's old seat.

Texas Democrats hope to catch a break not only from an anticipated high turnout of black voters for Kirk, a business-oriented moderate, but also from an anticipated high turnout of Mexican-American voters excited about the nomination of Tony Sanchez, another business-oriented moderate (and friend of Dubya), as the state's first Democratic nominee for governor.

Greens are running candidates in both races, which will only further rile Democrats if the Green vote ends up the difference in the race. Greens reply that they intend to make the difference in such races and don't mind scuttling the chances of moderate Democrats.

That's a principled position to take, but come next January, if Republicans sweep the state House, which is the lone Democratic redoubt left in Austin, and if interim Gov. Rick Perry returns to the Governor's Mansion, very bad things will happen on issues Greens hold most dear. Oh, bad things would happen under the business Democrats, too, but the business D's occasionally let good things happen, while Perry struck down every bill that came his way that was even remotely progressive.

By the same token, if the US Senate returns to Republican rule and the House remains Republican, very bad things will happen to the rest of us. We had a taste the first few months of Dubya's reign. The Democrats in nominal control of the Senate nowadays may seem feckless, but remember that at least a half dozen Senate D's at any time are a threat to join the R's to pass bad old bills, which limits Daschle's options.

Still, Daschle and his allies have managed to moderate bills in his first year as majority leader. Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy has held back some of Dubya's questionable nominees to federal courts and took some of the worst features out of the USA PATRIOT bill, even if he and the rest of the Senate succumbed to post-9/11 hysteria in allowing that overreaching bill to become law. (In their defense, recall that Daschle received an anthrax-tainted letter, purporting to be from an Islamic terrorist, but which now appears to have come from US military sources, on the eve of that vote. A similar letter to Leahy was caught before it reached his office.)

Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin forced some progressive elements into the Farm Bill. Ted Kennedy is calling the shots on health, education, labor and pensions and produced an education bill that looked good until Dubya decided not to fund it. Jim Jeffords is chairing the environment and public works committee instead of right-winger Bob Smith.

Bush has given lip service to bipartisanship, but he has dived into this year's mid-term election season on behalf of Republicans in the hopes of regaining control of both houses of Congress. He has headlined more than two dozen fundraisers, including a $33 million, record-setting fundraiser for the Republican National Committee on May 14. That's the one where Republicans were peddling a Sept. 11 photo of Bush on Air Force One to donors. Big donors received private briefings from senior White House officials and Cabinet members.

We don't like defending the status quo, but with Bush in the White House we don't see much choice. Greens plan to run Senate candidates in Illinois, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey and Texas. They doubtless will have much more progressive agendas than their incumbent Democratic rivals -- and they have every right to run. Will they help Bush? Ultimately the voters decide.

Carter in Cuba

Jimmy Carter is perhaps the best ex-president the United States has ever had. On his recent trip to Cuba he used his new command of Spanish in a speech broadcast across the island nation not only to give most Cubans their first notice of a native democratization effort but also to lecture both Fidel Castro and George W. Bush. As Stephanie Salter of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, after Carter dared to criticize Bush, you wondered if his plane would be diverted to Guantanamo on the way home so the former president could be interrogated as a presumed enemy of the American people.

Cuban exiles in Florida and, to some extent, in New Jersey, have exercised a disproportionate lever on US policy with their adamant and sometimes violent opposition against normalization of relations with Cuba. The US should remove the embargo, normalize relations and encourage commerce with Cuba. That would help the Cuban people and encourage a more open society and the return of democracy. If commerce is good enough for Red China, why not Cuba? -- JMC

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