Chuck Todd of National Journal notes that the conventional wisdom indicates a pickup of perhaps two Senate seats for the Democrats. "But as Charlie Cook has pointed out, Senate races never break evenly for both parties. The key for the party that's got that little breeze at the end is putting enough races in play to win all those toss-ups. ... The makings for a Democratic advantage are brewing. There's no difference between netting three Senate seats and netting six or seven. Once the Democrats are in a position to net a third, it probably means all those slightly-leaning GOP seats are going their way and the gain will be closer to six than to two."

Chris Bowers of MyDD.com sees the best Democratic chance for a pickup in Pennsylvania, where polls have consistently shown challenger Bob Casey (D) over 50% and Sen. Rick Santorum (R) below 40%. Democrats also expect competitive challenges in Ohio and Missouri, where polls show Republican Sens. Mike DeWine and Jim Talent respectively below 50%. Rep. Sherrod Brown and Iraq war vet Paul Hackett are lined up for a Democratic primary in Ohio to take on DeWine while State Auditor Claire McKaskill (D) plans to challenge Talent in Missouri.

Bowers expects the battle for the Senate to be waged in Rhode Island, Tennessee, Montana and Arizona, where Democrats hope to pick off GOP-held seats, and Maryland, Minnesota, Washington and Michigan, where the GOP hopes to pick up Dem-held seats. With the exception of Rhode Island, both parties are targeting states that are generally considered to be "safe" or "lean" states for the other party. In all eight states, polls show the sitting party with a decent advantage outside of the margin of error. "The party that does the best job of pushing their targets into the 'already competitive' category will have a huge advantage come October of 2006." To have a realistic shot at retaking the Senate, Dems need to push all four of their targets into the "competitive" category, and prevent Republicans from pushing more than two of their seats up into that category.

He also notes "Wait and See" races that could potentially become competitive if specific candidates join the race, or if the wind picks up. They include Nevada, where Sen. Jon Ensign (R) has low approval ratings but a commanding lead against Jack Carter (D); Virginia, where James Webb is one of the few Democrats who could make this seat competitive; Mississippi, which could become competitive if Trent Lott retires. Republicans also hold out hope for Florida, where the GOP is trying to ease Rep. Katherine Harris out of her planned challenge of Sen. Bill Nelson (D); Nebraska, where Sen. Ben Nelson (D) has huge wads of cash and a 63% approval rating even in deep red Nebraska; Wisconsin, where Tommy Thompson (R) could give Sen. Herb Kohl (D) a run for his money; and Vermont, which progressive populist Rep. Bernie Sanders (I) should win, but Republicans have not given up. Bowers also listed New Jersey as "wait and see" in his 12/1/05 posting but after Gov.-elect Jon Corzine (D) on 12/9/05 announced he would name Rep. Robert Menendez (D) to succeed him in the Senate, a poll indicated Tom Kean Jr., son of the longtime GOP pol, would run a strong challenge, though half the potential voters didn't know either candidate.


HEALTH CARE COULD SWING ELECTION: Health care will play a critical role in the 2006 elections, a national survey showed. The poll by Lake Research Partners in November for Americans for Health Care, a project of Service Employees International Union and EMILY's List, found that health care and prescription drugs were the top concern of women, at 19%, and men, 17%. Of women who are undecided in congressional races, 24% rate it as their top concern. Rising health care costs are the top economic concern for women, at 29%, and men, at 26%, and 61% of women say health care will be one of the most important issues in making their voting decision, compared with 54% for men. By nearly a 2 to 1 margin, women think Democrats would do better on health care (47% vs. 25%). Men agree 49% to 23%. Democrats lead the generic congressional ballot by 4 points, put there by women voters, who support the Democrat by 11 points, while men vote 3 points Republican. A woman candidate expands the Democratic advantage to 6 points. And voters are significantly more likely to vote for a congressional candidate who plans to expand affordable health care (50% more likely, 27% much more likely). See www.ImAHealthCareVoter.org.


BUSH TO NOLA: NO FOLLOW-UP: George W. Bush stood in Jackson Square in New Orleans on 9/15/05 and pledged: "Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives. And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again." But ThinkProgress.org noted it hasn't worked out that way. Washington Post reporter Mike Allen said 12/11/05 on Meet the Press: "The last time the president was in the hurricane region was October 11, two months ago. The president stood in New Orleans and said it was going to be one of the largest reconstruction efforts in the history of the world. You go to the White House home page, there's Barney camp, there's Social Security, there's Renewing Iraq. Where's renewing New Orleans? A presidential advisor told me that issue has fallen so far off the radar screen, you can't find it." The New York Times said the neglect is threatening the future of the city: "We are about to lose New Orleans. Whether it is a conscious plan to let the city rot until no one is willing to move back or honest paralysis over difficult questions, the moment is upon us when a major American city will die, leaving nothing but a few shells for tourists to visit like a museum." ThinkProgress asked: "Why does this president seem more interested in rebuilding Iraq than rebuilding America?"

UPDATE: [As this went to press, Bush, at the prompting of Louisiana officials, promised on 12/15/05 to seek $1.5 bln to rebuild New Orleans levees.]


BUSH: CONSTITUTION 'JUST A G-D PIECE OF PAPER': When Republican congressional leaders met with George W. Bush in November, he was in no mood to hear warnings that his push to renew the more onerous provisions of the PATRIOT Act could further alienate conservatives still mad at the president from his botched attempt to nominate White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. "I don't give a goddamn," Bush retorted, according to CapitolHillBlue.com. "I'm the President and the Commander-in-Chief. Do it my way."

"Mr. President," one aide in the meeting said. "There is a valid case that the provisions in this law undermine the Constitution."

"Stop throwing the Constitution in my face," Bush screamed back. "It's just a goddamned piece of paper!"

Republican House and Senate conferees on 12/8/05 agreed on renewal of the PATRIOT Act, keeping the expanded surveillance authorities for the FBI and other agencies. Senate Democrats have threatened a filibuster.

Doug Thompson, publisher of CapitolHillBlue.com, wrote on 12/9/05, "I've talked to three people present for the meeting that day and they all confirm that the President of the United States called the Constitution 'a goddamned piece of paper.'" Thompson noted that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, while still White House counsel, wrote that the "Constitution is an outdated document."


RURAL BROADBAND AID LAGS: Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, on 12/9/05 called on the USDA to to increase high-speed internet access for rural areas by removing hurdles which prevent small towns and businesses from receiving federal loans for broadband. Harkin, who was then Agriculture Committee chairman, established and dedicated funding to a new initiative for rural broadband loans in the 2002 farm bill, yet three years later, USDA has yet to use much of the funding. "In the past, USDA's Rural Utilities Service helped bring electricity and telephone service to rural America, and now the Department of Agriculture needs to assist rural communities in obtaining broadband technology," Harkin said. "Instead, USDA has mired the delivery of rural broadband assistance in red tape and excessive financial requirements. ... USDA needs to embrace its proud tradition of doing what's necessary to ensure rural America is not left behind in technological advances."

In other broadband news, hours after New Orleans officials announced that they would deploy a city-owned, wireless Internet network in the wake of hurricane Katrina, regional phone giant BellSouth Corp. withdrew an offer to donate one of its damaged buildings that would have housed new police headquarters, the Washington Post reported 12/3/05. City officials said BellSouth was upset about the plan to provide high-speed Internet access for free to homes and businesses to help stimulate resettlement and relocation to the devastated city. Around the country, large telephone companies have aggressively lobbied against localities launching their own Internet networks, arguing that they amount to taxpayer-funded competition. Some states have laws prohibiting them.

Also, Cox News reports that telephone and cable companies want authority to charge websites for high-speed Internet access. A House Energy & Commerce subcommittee is considering a Broadband Internet Transmission Services Act that would shield broadband providers from government regulation.


GOP MANDATES POSTAL RATE INCREASE: The price of a first-class stamp is going up, from 37 to 39 cents 1/8/06, and other postal rates also will increase an average of 5.4% despite a Postal Service that paid off its debts this past year for the first time since it was spun off from the old Post Office in 1970 and is running surpluses. But Congress is demanding higher rates so the Postal Service can establish a bigger reserve, Max Sawicky notes. "Don't you love that Congress is requiring the USPS, which it doesn't manage, to be more virtuous than their own sorry hides?"

The Progressive Populist will absorb most of the higher postal costs, as one-year and six-month subscription rates will remain the same, but we will increase the rate for a two-year subscription from the current $54.95 to $59.95, effective Feb. 1. [Get in your renewals before then.]


PENTAGON SPIES ON US: A three-year-old Pentagon agency is compiling reports of suspicious activity in the US, Walter Pincus reported in the 12/11/05 Washington Post. The Counterintelligence Field Activity, or CIFA, a three-year-old Pentagon agency whose size and budget remain classified receives "Talon reports," based on information from civilians and military personnel who stumble across people or information they think might be part of a terrorist plot or threat against defense facilities at home or abroad. The Talon system is part of the Defense Department's growing effort to gather intelligence within the US. The Pentagon's emphasis on domestic intelligence has raised concerns among some civil liberties advocates and intelligence officials. For some of them, the Talon system carries echoes of the 1960s, when the Pentagon collected information about anti-Vietnam War groups and peace activists that led to congressional hearings in the 1970s and limits on the types of information the Defense Department could gather and retain about US citizens. Washington lawyer Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the 9/11 commission, was "particularly apprehensive about the expansion of our military's role in domestic intelligence gathering," noting that Congress has yet to pay attention to the Talon program. The Pentagon's collection of data, he said, was a "cause for concern," partly because little is known about it publicly. "Programs such as CIFA, Eagle Eyes and Talon -- names unfamiliar to most Americans -- must receive robust scrutiny by Congress and the media," Ben-Veniste said.


DEAN'S 'GAFFES': Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean came in for criticism not only from Republicans, but also by fellow Democrats after he compared Iraq with Vietnam in a 12/5/05 interview with a San Antonio radio station and said, "The idea that we're going to win this war is an idea that unfortunately is just plain wrong." Dean also compared the Bush administration's lack of candor about the war to that of the Nixon administration. "What we see today is very much like what was going on in Watergate," he said candidly. John Judis, writing for TNR.com 12/8/05, noted that "Dean's statements perfectly fit Michael Kinsley's definition of a 'gaffe' -- an assertion that is impolitic but true." Judis, who admitted he's no fan of Dean, wrote that the former Vermont governor has been almost consistently correct in his statements. "He has been the Democrats' and the nation's Cassandra -- willing to reveal bitter truths about which Republicans and his fellow Democrats would prefer that he remain silent." Judis recounted some of Dean's most controversial statements about Iraq:

• February 2003. After Secretary of State Colin Powell made his case for war at the United Nations, most other leading Democrats applauded. Dean dissented: "I heard little today that leads me to believe that there is an imminent threat warranting unilateral military action by the United States against Iraq." Later that month, Dean warned that the Bush administration was preparing to invade Iraq unilaterally. Then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay charged that Dean "either doesn't know what he's talking about ... or he's seriously uninformed, or he's just misleading the American people and his party."

• April 2003. As Democratic presidential candidates declared that the capture of Baghdad and the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime vindicated his support for the invasion, Dean said: "All these folks who are crowing about their vote and the outcome are going to learn that the occupation will be very difficult." He added, "I'm not a pacifist. We've removed a horrible dictator, but the price we're going to pay is down the road."

• June 2003. As reports began to surface that the Bush administration might have misled the country about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, many leading Democrats were hesitant to question the administration's probity. But Dean said, "We need a thorough look at what really happened going into Iraq. It appears to me that what the president did was make a decision to go into Iraq sometime in early 2002, or maybe even late 2001, and then try to get the justification afterward."

• December 2003-January 2004. After Saddam Hussein was captured on December 14, Dean appeared to go out on the farthest of limbs. "[T]he capture of Saddam has not made America safer," Dean said. "The Iraq war diverted critical intelligence and military resources, undermined diplomatic support for our fight against terror, and created a new rallying cry for terrorist recruits." Dick Gephardt termed Dean's statement "ludicrous." John Kerry took it as "more proof that all the advisors in the world can't give Howard Dean the military and foreign-policy experience, leadership skills, or diplomatic temperament necessary to lead this country through dangerous times." Then-Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said, "It's baffling that anyone could possibly think life under a brutal dictator who routinely tortured, raped, and imprisoned his own people is better than the freedom and democracy taking root in Iraq today."

Much of what Dean said on those occasions has now become conventional wisdom. But as the recent fracas over Dean's remarks demonstrates, his statements continue to be poorly received. How could he say Iraq is like Vietnam? Well, it's true there are no rice paddies in Iraq, but there is a striking resemblance between the Nixon administration's plan for Vietnamization -- which culminated in the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese -- and the Bush administration's plans for training an Iraqi army. In both cases, victory proved elusive.

From The Progressive Populist, Jan. 1-15, 2006

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