The New York Times reported Jan. 1 that some leading Democrats were trying to find a liberal talk show host who could compete with Rush Limbaugh and other conservative radio and TV personalities. John Podesta, former White House chief of staff for Bill Clinton and now a law professor at Georgetown University, is discussing with Internet entrepreneur Steven T. Kirsch and others the creation of a liberal version of the Heritage Foundation, the conservative research group that is credited with helping start the modern conservative movement. Rob Glaser, founder and chief executive of RealNetworks, the Internet video service, said he believed there was room to create a progressive version of Fox News, but Democrats said a far more readily achievable goal would be to foster national liberal radio personalities. Democracy Radio Inc., overseen by former Democratic Congressional staffer Tom Athens, will try to identify talent and help them to create programming and actually connect them with local stations. "We want to plant a thousand seeds and see how many flowers actually arise," Athens said.

Phil Donahue's show on MSNBC has lagged in the ratings (although it has better ratings than many other shows, including Chris Matthews' Hardball) but the conventional wisdom is that liberal radio programs have not worked because liberal hosts tend to present policy issues in all of their dry complexity while conservative hosts more readily simplify discussions to the point of excluding liberal points of view, demonizing liberal figures and screening out liberal callers who try to respond. Jim Hightower produced a lively progressive populist talk show that was dropped by ABC in 1995 after he criticized Disney's purchase of the network. After his talk show was picked up by a smaller network, he was largely excluded from chain-controlled major markets, even in his hometown of Austin.

Putting the lie to the canard that liberal talk shows can't pull in the numbers is Randi Rhodes, who hosts the top-rated show on her radio station in Palm Beach County, Fla., pulling better numbers than Rush Limbaugh, whose program airs directly before hers every day. She has proven to be a tenacious defender of the liberal viewpoint, and she's "damned entertaining in the process," according to takebackthemedia.com. So why does Clear Channel refuse to syndicate her? She told BuzzFlash.com that Clear Channel execs have told her Limbaugh has threatened to take his program to another company if Clear Channel syndicates her show.

"I hope that Democrats will start their own networks seeking out businesses that want to win the hearts and habits of their customers. I hope it will be a free and fair environment in which to work" she said. "Republicans did buy up the media, either through mergers and acquisitions, or through advertisement placement. They got control of the message. They are not letting go. Corporate America likes the arrangement entirely too much.

"Democrats must become active on a few fronts" she said. "Bring back the Fairness Doctrine for one thing. Two, make sure that we have an organization that makes money, sure, but that gets OUR message out. Over and over and over ... because it is a message of decency and problem solving. Not war and fear. If people could hear this argument, they'd know it to be true, because eventually they will believe their own eyes and ears." [See TheRandiRhodesShow.com.]

BUSH APPROVAL IN FREE FALL. As the White House has pursued right-wing policies, public approval of George W. Bush's performance has plunged 29% in the past 16 months. A Gallup poll released Jan. 17 echoed other recent polls showing Bush's approval rating declined to 61% from its peak of 90% after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. A Gallup survey from earlier in the week showed a 58% Bush approval rating -- the lowest since before 9/11. The president's job approval was at 56% in a Newsweek poll and 53% in a CNN-Time poll released over the weekend. His approval rate was in the 60s in both polls in November. Gallup found 55% said Bush was not spending enough time on the economy, which remains afflicted with the worst unemployment in almost nine years, a three-year stock market decline that has cost stockholders almost $6 trillion, and economic growth of barely 1.5% over the last seven quarters. Only 36% of respondents said they would "definitely vote" for Bush in 2004.

Stewart Powell of Hearst Newspapers noted the slippage recalled that seen by President George Bush I after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Bush Sr. enjoyed an 89% approval rating the week after a US-led coalition evicted Iraqi forces from Kuwait. But 16 months later, Bush's ratings had plummeted to 32%, setting the stage for his 1992 defeat.

Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found support for an attack on Iraq remains highly conditional. It found 76% favored using military force if UN inspectors found Iraq hiding weapons of mass destruction. But only 46% want force if inspectors find Iraq hiding "the ability to easily make weapons." Pew found 53% believed W had not clearly explained the rationale for using US military forces to oust Saddam -- up from 37% with that sentiment in September.

DUBYA DIP. George W. Bush said in his final radio address of 2002 that the economy "was pulling out of a recession that began before I took office," but the National Bureau of Economic Research reports not only that the recession started after Bush took office, but it has become the longest recession in history -- or perhaps two recessions, a "double dip." NBER (nber.org), the recognized authority on dating the beginning and end of business cycles, refutes the GOP canard that the recession began under Clinton. Ten years of economic growth peaked in March of 2001, leaving the ensuing recession squarely on Dubya's watch. CBS Marketwatch noted that the current 21-month-old downturn is the longest contraction in 70 years. The previous recession began in 1990 and ended in 1991, NBER noted. "So business cycle peaks neatly bracketed Clinton's two terms," Max Sawicky (maxspeak.org) commented.

McCAIN DEMOCRATS? At least five presidential rivals -- Rep. Gephardt, Sens. Lieberman, Kerry and Edwards, and former Vermont Gov. Dean -- have contacted John Weaver about a 2004 campaign role, the Wall Street Journal reported Jan. 17. Republican-turned-Democrat Weaver was strategist for McCain's 2000 nomination bid that threatened Bush before the campaign ran out of money. The prize: independent voters who flocked to McCain's "Straight Talk" campaign -- and still support him. Lieberman used the phrase in his campaign announcement. Former Sen. Gary Hart joined longtime friend McCain for a "Straight Talk" forum in Arizona Jan. 17. A McCain aide said of the wannabes: "We're contacting the FBI about a potential case of identity theft."

MONEY BUILT GOP HOUSE. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas) and Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) abandoned the traditional method of choosing committee chairmen based on seniority and instead favored members who demonstrated both fundraising savvy and party loyalty, the Center for Responsive Politics (opensecrets.org) reported Jan. 16. New chairs on the Armed Services, Resources, Government Reform and Agriculture committees donated a total of more than $1 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee and contributed nearly $500,000 more to House and Senate candidates through their candidate committees and leadership PACs in the 2002 election cycle. Some Republicans are crying foul. "Fundraising evidently was an enormous part of it," said Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) told the Denver Post. "It's unseemly. It's like buying seats and we shouldn't do that." Hefley was one of five senior members on the House Resource Committee passed over by DeLay and Hastert when they chose Richard Pombo of California to be chairman. Although Pombo gave just $25,000 to the NRCC during the 2002 election cycle, he raised nearly $1 million for his own House campaign. (Hefley, by contrast, raised less than $100,000 last cycle.) Pombo is a White House favorite as an advocate of development of public lands for logging, drilling and other uses. He also promised to overhaul the Endangered Species Act, which he says infringes on private property development rights. Not surprisingly, agribusiness, energy and construction interests contributed nearly $300,000 in individual and PAC donations to Pombo's 2002 campaign.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) will chair the Government Reform Committee, which oversees federal workers and the District of Columbia. Many expected the chair to go to Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), the committee's most senior Republican. Shays was apparently snubbed because he co-sponsored last year's campaign finance reform bill against the Republican leadership's vigorous opposition. Davis' prowess as chairman of the NRCC, which raised $180 million in hard and soft money during the 2002 cycle, helped the GOP gain six seats last November. Davis himself contributed $575,000 to the NRCC through his campaign committee, as well as more than $90,000 to other House candidates. Davis' PAC, Federal Victory Fund, contributed nearly $250,000 to House candidates in the 2002 election cycle. By contrast, Shays contributed just $50,000 to the NRCC and gave less than $7,000 to other candidates.

Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), who gave $275,000 to the NRCC during the last election cycle, contributed more than $100,000 to other House and Senate candidates and gave $40,000 to Republicans vying for state positions, got the chair of the new Homeland Security Committee.

Two new chairs were qualified based on seniority: Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) was chosen for Agriculture after 10 years on the panel and the most senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee, Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), was picked as new chair. Both Goodlatte and Hunter have made requisite donations to the NRCC, however. Goodlatte contributed $65,000 in the 2002 election cycle, while Hunter gave $80,000.

Three GOP members who signed a discharge petition that forced the campaign reform bill to a vote on the House floor last year were passed over for committee assignments they sought, in apparent retaliation, Common Cause acting President Don Simon said. Rep. Robert Simmons (R-Ct.) did not get a seat on Appropriations, Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.) was passed over for Armed Services and Charles Bass (R-N.H.) was denied a the Transportation and Infrastructure.

KUCINICH MULLS PREZ RACE. Rep. Dennis Kucinich appears to be seriously considering a bid for the Democrats' 2004 presidential nomination, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported Jan. 12. "The issues that I have been debating in Congress, which are the major issues that I talk about in Cleveland, are resonating with people across the country," said Kucinich, who is in his fourth House term. "As a result, I am hearing from thousands of people from East Coast to West Coast, talking to me about running. I am listening. It is a great honor ... to even be considered." Kucinich has been outspoken in opposition to war in Iraq, a critic of "free trade" agreements and Republican economic policies and an advocate of environmental protection and labor rights. Steve Rosenthal, former political director of the AFL-CIO, told the Plain Dealer Kucinich could force other Dems to respond to issues important to the labor movement -- workers' rights and jobs lost to free trade, for instance. "He is a guy who is not afraid to speak up and fight for what he believes in. He wins just by putting his issues -- our issues -- front and center," Rosenthal said. "In terms of winnability, it is a steep, steep uphill fight."

Ralph Nader, who appeals to much the same economic populists as Kucinich, thinks the former Cleveland mayor should jump into the race. "There needs to be a clearly progressive candidate in the primaries," Nader said recently when asked about Kucinich. "I hope he does." Nader stopped short of endorsing Kucinich, since he is uncertain about his own plans.

A web site, www.draftkucinich.com, is promoting Kucinich, but the Plain Dealer noted the former mayor has run outside his Cleveland base only once -- a failed bid for Ohio secretary of state in a Democratic primary. He raised $508,712 for his 2002 re-election, including more than $195,000 from labor unions. He had $48,697 in his campaign treasury going into the new year. But to run a viable presidential race, a candidate has "to raise a million bucks a week," estimated Cleveland Heights lawyer Glenn Billington, an admirer of Kucinich who worked in past campaigns for Hart and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. "We are in the year that counts. You saw what happened with Tom Daschle," he said, referring to the Senate leader who decided to bypass the presidential contest. "You have to be out there. It is full time."

GREEN GETS SF POST. Matt Gonzalez was elected president of San Francisco's 11-member Board of Supervisors Jan. 8. The position, formerly held by Tom Ammiano, is the second most powerful in San Francisco, after the mayor, and is elected by the board. Gonzalez is the third US Green to hold such an office. Elizabeth Horton Sheff is currently City Council president in Hartford, Conn.; Keiko Bonk served as County Council Chair for the Island of Hawai'i in 1995.

"At the end of the day, people want city services, accountability and an honorable debate by elected officials who don't abuse the public process to gain ideological advantage," said Gonzalez, who was elected on a 6-5 vote. At the top of his legislative priority is a city minimum-wage law, as well as continuing the fight for a municipal power utility.

Only 3% of San Francisco voters are registered Green, but the party's gubernatorial candidate Peter Camejo received 15.5% of the San Francisco vote in November, placing ahead of Republican candidate Bill Simon. In 2001, San Francisco voters approved a ballot measure promoted by Gonzalez and the Greens to enact instant runoff voting for city elections. Greens also hold two seats on the San Francisco Board of Education.

DEMS 'MUST BLOCK RIGHT-WING JUDGES.' Benjamin Sachs, a labor lawyer writing in the Baltimore Sun Jan. 1, said Senate Democrats should demand that Sen. Trent Lott's candidate for the federal court of appeals, Charles Pickering, not be renominated. Mr. Pickering was blocked last year by the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee after it emerged that he bent the law and abused his role as trial judge in order to give a lenient sentence to a cross burner. Senate Democrats also must fight to preserve the longstanding "blue slip" prerogative through which senators can withhold approval of judicial nominees from their home states. During Bill Clinton's presidency, Republicans used the blue slip to block countless nominations. But new Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah is suggesting that he will ignore the blue slip rule and gavel through quick reviews of Bush's picks for courts of appeals. Democrats also must maintain a strong presence on the Senate Judiciary Committee and respond to the partisan obstructionism practiced by the Republicans during the Clinton presidency, when, the GOP blocked at least 12 highly qualified appeals court nominees simply in order to maintain vacancies for a Republican president. Sachs wrote that the Democrats should demand that Mr. Clinton's blocked nominees get confirmed before Mr. Bush puts another conservative ideologue on the bench. Until this happens, Senate Democrats should use whatever tools are available to them to keep Mr. Bush's ideological nominees off the courts. Finally, if Mr. Bush nominates a new Supreme Court justice -- a very real possibility, given the likely retirements of either Justice William H. Rehnquist or Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (or both) -- the Democrats should filibuster, if necessary, any extremist nominees. "Neither the president nor the GOP in Congress has the public's approval to stack the courts with right-wing ideologues, and it is up to the Democrats to make sure that this does not happen, he wrote.

GOP RACE FLAP ESCALATES. A California Republican leader has called on the highest-ranking African American in the state GOP to stop "parading" his race by complaining about "how awful it is to be a black Republican." Randy Ridgel, a member of the party's board of directors, responded to an accusation by fellow board member Shannon Reeves, who is black, that Republicans have treated African Americans as "window dressing." "I, for one, am getting bored with that kind of garbage," Ridgel wrote. "Let me offer this suggestion to Mr. Reeves: 'Get over it, bucko. You don't know squat about hardship.'"

Ridgel, a retired white rancher from rural Lake County, also endorsed an essay suggesting that there would have been an upside to a Confederate victory in the Civil War. Regarding blacks freed from slavery at the end of the war, Ridgel wrote: "Most of the poor devils had no experience fending for themselves, so they fared worse than before the war and during the war." Reeves called Ridgel's letter "an ignorant, offensive statement of the highest order."

The exchange grows out of the heated campaign for the party chair, which will be decided in February. The contenders are party Vice Chairman Bill Back, the favorite of GOP conservatives, and Duf Sundheim, a Silicon Valley lawyer. Back's campaign was in turmoil over his distribution in 1999 of the Civil War essay by conservative writer William S. Lind. Back has apologized for sending the essay to GOP activists, saying that he strongly disagrees with the article and "should have been more sensitive."

But Ridgel defended the essay in an open letter to Back. Then Back forwarded Ridgel's letter to Republican activists. In the letter, Ridgel said he might republish the essay and dared opponents "to come after me," adding, "You sure as hell won't see me apologize to these turkeys."

Back told the Los Angeles Times he would "rather not give an opinion" on Ridgel's letter, saying, "I will consult with my wizards and we'll get back with you." Later, he said he disagreed with the statements "regarding slavery and Reconstruction and their impact on African Americans."

Reeves said he was disappointed that none of the scores of GOP activists who got copies of Ridgel's letter had made any public statements about it. "When that letter was sent out," he said, "there should have been a mass outcry within the party."

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