Friday, June 11, 2010

We Aren't Your Field Hands!

Ben Smith writes for On June 8 after Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas won her runoff election with Arkansas Lieutenant Governor Bill Halter, Smith received a phone call from an un-named White House staff member.

"Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members money down the toilet on a pointless exercise," the official told Smith. "If even half that total had been well-targeted and applied in key House races across this country, that could have made a real difference in November."

That remark demonstrates so much cultural and political insensitivity that it begs for a response. I'm responding as a native Arkansan, an unapologetic Halter supporter, and someone who believes that in a free society people are entitled to choose the people and causes they consider worth supporting.

Bill Halter received almost 48% of the votes in the June 8 runoff election because working people and progressives in Arkansas want a Senator who respects us as equals, not her hired help. Working people and progressives in Arkansas encouraged Halter to run for Senate. We knew it was an uphill fight, and gladly accepted help from around the country.

Workers and progressives are not field hands for Senator Lincoln, the White House, or anyone else. We support candidates whose records and values square with what matters to us. We're concerned about seniors who can't afford their medications. We're concerned about families who can't afford to help their children attend college because government policies helped corporations move jobs out of the country and favored banks over students concerning student loans.

Workers and progressives disagree with politicians who agreed to loan money to Wall Street banks and Detroit auto manufacturers to keep the economy afloat but were unwilling to loan money to working families trying to avoid foreclosure of their homes. We disagree with politicians who realize the need for federally-funded crop insurance for the nation's farmers—a public option that Senator Lincoln has never opposed—but who don't believe that what is good policy for the farm crop should be good policy for the farm workers who produce the crop.

On these and other issues, a Democratic label alone no longer will earn our support. As Jesus said, people are known by their fruit. We supported Halter because Lincoln's voting record doesn't square with our needs and aspirations. That wasn't flushing money down a toilet. It was acting to replace an insensitive politician by supporting someone whose aspirations and values matched our core values.

Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination and the 2008 presidential election because we were willing to "flush" our money and energies this way. Ned Lamont defeated Senator Joe Lieberman for the Democratic primary in 2006 because we were willing to "flush" our money and energies this way. Senator Claire McCaskill was elected to the Senate from Missouri because we were willing to "flush" our money and energies this way.

We didn't toilet our money and energies in those efforts or for Halter. We invested in candidates we embraced. In the Halter instance that investment didn't produce the desired result. Still, it was our investment to make. That's freedom.

If the White House wants to invest its energies more effectively, it shouldn't treat the people who supported Halter's senatorial bid like field hands by talking and acting like plantation owners. That attitude won't help Lincoln win her fall election against Republican Congressman John Boozman, whose campaign coffers will undoubtedly be "flushed" with donations from business tycoons from Arkansas and elsewhere.

Instead, Lincoln and her handlers should ponder how to re-habilitate her in the minds of Arkansas voters who supported Halter. Lincoln can't win the general election without our votes. Treating us like field hands isn't the way to get them.

Thanks to the White House staffer who spoke with Ben Smith, we know what Lincoln's White House cheerleaders think of us. We're not your field hands. If you want to lose Lincoln's seat in the fall, continue talking and acting like we are.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


By now most of the nation recognizes that the risks associated with offshore oil exploration are more real than the oil industry, lawmakers, and government regulators have ever admitted. U.S. and state lawmakers and regulators either failed to understand or consciously chose to place blind and unjustifiable trust in oil industry claims about the safety of offshore oil exploration. The same lawmakers and regulators chose to blindly believe oil industry claims that devices to prevent deep sea oil well blowouts will work, or can be effectively repaired before a devastating oil leak occurs following a blowout. Now, almost two months after oil began leaking from the April 20 blowout of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil well more than a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, we know how wrong those claims were.

As much as it may hurt, it is time to admit the truth. The oil industry and government regulators gambled that offshore oil exploration would not pose a problem to the environment, or that any problem would be manageable. Americans joined the bet. We lost.

It is important to realize that the gamble was not necessary. It is certainly true that the United States is overly dependent on oil and other fossil fuels for energy needs. President Jimmy Carter warned about that over-dependence during his one term in office, a factor that probably played a role in his unpopularity and eventual defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980 thirty years ago. Had the U.S. population chosen to believe President Carter, heed his urgent call to refocus our lives around conserving energy better, decrease how much we rely on petroleum and other fossil fuels, develop new energy sources and supply systems, and rethink the way we travel (such as by relying more on mass transit), the chances are good that offshore oil drilling would not have been permitted so much and managed so poorly.

But national and corporate arrogance combined with political and corporate opportunism led Americans to reject Carter's assessment of the situation and his plan for energy management. Ronald Reagan, with an easy grin, familiar voice, and rosy projections of national life built on distrust for government and blind trust in the supposed virtues of free enterprise, defeated Carter in 1980. Reagan's election ended the fledgling steps taken during the Carter administration to shift the United States away from its addiction to oil. Reagan's vice presidential running mate was George H.W. Bush, a longtime friend of the Texas oil industry. James Baker, the Texas lawyer whose clients included major petroleum companies, served as chief of staff, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of State during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies (1980-1992). Although the United States worked with other nations to craft the Kyoto Protocol calling for global reduction in greenhouse gases caused by use of fossil fuels during the presidency of Bill Clinton, the United States refused to join the Kyoto Protocol after George W. Bush became President in 2001. Then Vice President Richard B. Cheney and oil industry apologists crafted energy policies favoring increased offshore oil drilling as well as drilling on federal land. One of their most bitter complaints was that they were unable to persuade Congress to permit oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And during the 2008 presidential election contest, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona chose Alaska Governor Sarah "Drill, Baby, Drill" Palin as his vice presidential running mate.

Even now it is interesting to observe how journalists, political historians, and the American public have ignored or pretended to forget this history. The Deepwater Horizon offshore oil well was placed into service in 2001. Oil industry leaders and political leaders from oil industry states downplayed the risks associated with offshore oil exploration and production long before then. As late as March 23, 2010, President Obama signaled his administration's approval of continued offshore oil exploration despite objections by environmentalists. Whenever environmental and safety concerns were raised, oil industry officials and their political friends would confidently assert that the risks associated with offshore oil exploration are rare and manageable. The world now knows that the risks are tragically real, that the oil industry, governmental regulators, and our lawmakers cannot manage the damage associated with them, and that we have no reason to expect that to change in the foreseeable future if we continue business as usual.

All of this should point the nation back to its rejection of President Jimmy Carter's effort to redirect the way we use energy and the sources for our energy. Carter was defeated in 1980 by Reagan, whose distrust of governmental regulation helped chart the course for U.S. energy over the past thirty years. Dead birds and fish increase and more land, water, and people are threatened with each passing day because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Yet the oil industry remains unwilling to admit its environmental arrogance and incompetence and is still somewhat unchecked by governmental lawmakers and regulators. This is the "small government" reality Americans chose with Reagan in 1980, along with Reagan's affable invitation that we embrace what we should now realize was free enterprise idolatry.

American energy policy, one result of that idolatry, now has tar balls washing ashore along the beaches of the Florida Gulf Coast. The families of killed and wounded workers on the Deepwater Horizon platform struggle with tragedies that will never be undone. We face years—if not decades—during which the waters of the Gulf will be unsafe for fish, water fowl, and humans. In the words of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, "the harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved."

It is not unfair to wonder how things might have been different had the nation listened to and trusted Carter's prophetic efforts instead of following Reagan's path.