NDN Blog

Debate returns to Washington

Having been in Washington now for 14 years, I have come to truly value the slow, deliberative nature of Congress.  People with diverse views are forced to come together to hash out a common way forward.  Tolerance, acceptance of difference is at the core of such a system, and required to make it work.  Of course we've had little of that in the Bush years.  Congress has acted as an irresponsible, braindead, corrupt, rubber stamp, allowing all sorts of nutty things to go on with little discussion, debate and oversight.  Committees did not meet.  Hearings weren't held.  The opposition party was dismissed rather than engaged.  This culture that allowed ideology to trump discourse, and debate to be seen as dissent, was one of the major reasons the Republicans went off track these past few years. 

We are already seeing the return of an engaged, deliberative Congress.  It will happen in big ways - the Reid/Pelosi challenge to the President on Iraq - an it will happen in many small ways, but the most dramatic and public way will be in Senator Joe Biden's four weeks of hearings on America's Middle East policy that start Tuesday.  The Senator plans to use his new power to help us better understand what to do; to engage the public in a vital debate about our future; to search, debate, discuss, discover; to call Administration officials to account for their words and actions; to admit that we do not know the best path, and want to, together, as Americans, find a better way. 

These hearings will be vital, important, difficult.  I can't wait for them to start, and welcome the return of messiness to our democracy.

Thanks for the kind words of encouragement

Just a quick thanks to the dozens of you who have contacted us about the appointment of new executive director, Ali Wade.  We all agree that she is a great addition, and look forward to seeing her on her first day, this Monday.

Hoyer releases ambitious 100 Hours schedule

New House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer just released the House Democrats ambitious schedule for the next few weeks.  See it here.   Key dates so far:

Tuesday, January 9 - Implement the 9/11 Commission Recommendations

Wednesday, January 10 - Increase the Minimum Wage

Thursday, January 11 - Expand Stem Cell Research

Friday, January 12 - Allow Negotiation for Lower Prescription Drug Costs

Wednesday, January 17 - Cut Interest Rates on Student Loans

Thursday, January 18 - End Subsidies for Big Oil and Invest in Renewable Energy

It is clearly a new day in Washington. 

Ali Weise joins NDN as new executive director

I am very excited to announce a major new step forward for our organization. One of the most talented and good people I know, Ali Weise, is joining NDN as our new executive director. Below, I send along a press release announcing her arrival.

Bringing Ali on board is the first in a series of steps we will be taking to ensure that this wonderful network we've built does its part - and does it well - at this critical time for the nation.

I hope everyone in the NDN community will make Ali feel welcome, and do everything they can to ensure her success in the years ahead,

Happy New Year all.


Simon Rosenberg

Veteran Congressional, political aide to become new executive director

Washington, DC – NDN, a progressive think tank and advocacy organization, announced that Alixandria Weise would be joining its staff in a newly created position of executive director.

“America and the progressive movement face a whole new array of 21st century challenges,” said Ali Weise. “Few organizations have thought more about or worked harder to help us meet these challenges than NDN. I am excited to be joining this team that has such a long track record of success, and I am ready to get to work.”

“Ali has the right mix of vision, intelligence and leadership skills to take NDN to the next institutional level,” said NDN President Simon Rosenberg. “I’ve known Ali for a long time, consider her a good friend and believe deeply that she is one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with. With Ali on board, there is much, much more NDN will be able to do to contribute to the important debates of our day.”

With the titles of Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer, Ms. Weise will oversee the day to day operations of NDN, and will report directly to President Simon Rosenberg. She will be joining NDN’s very experienced management team that includes New Politics Institute Director Peter Leyden, a well-known writer and former managing editor of Wired magazine, and Hispanic Strategy Center Director Joe Garcia, the former head of the Cuban-American National Foundation.

Alixandria Weise, 31, has worked in the United States Congress and Democratic politics for over ten years. During the 2006 campaign cycle, Ms. Weise was the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's Campaign Director and then became the Deputy Director of the Committee's Independent Expenditure operation, which spent $67 million in over 50 congressional races. Ali served as Congressman Adam Smith's (WA-09) Chief of Staff from 2000 - 2005, and as his Communications and Legislative Director from 1997 - 2000. During her time in Congress, Weise was a leading staffer for the New Democrat Coalition, a House Caucus currently co-chaired by Congressman Smith.

Ms. Weise also ran the Washington State Caucus campaign for Senator John Kerry's presidential race in 2004. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, and a Washington state native.

NDN is a think tank and advocacy organization working to advance a 21st century progressivism. It has three affiliates, the New Politics Institute, the Hispanic Strategy Center and the NDN Political Fund. NDN and its work can be found at www.ndn.org, www.newpolitics.net and www.ndnblog.org.

One more chance?

In the coming weeks the Bush Administration will coming to the American people and essentially be asking for one more chance to fix Iraq.  Having rejected the more innovative ideas in the ISG Report, their plan will be more prayer than policy, and will have little chance of making things better for the troubled region.   The question Congress will be facing is given the extraordinary failure of the Bush Iraq policy do they guys deserve one more chance? And if not what is the alternative?

I for one am looking forward to Senator Joe Biden's hearings on Iraq that start next week.  He has a real chance to help establish an accurate picture of what has happened and is happening in the Middle East today. I hope one of the first people called is Secretary of State Rice, and let her explain to the American people her view of the theory behind our actions in the region and how we create a better path forward.   

There is a lot of talk these days about escalating the number of troops in Iraq, but this idea seems increasingly DOA.  Republican Senators Hagel, Smith and Collins have already said no, and possible GOP Presidential candidate Brownback certainly seems to be leaning no.  Bush simply doesn't have the votes for sending more troops into Iraq without making a more convincing case that it will improve conditions on the ground. 

Given that it is now become clear for the whole world to see that the Iranian-backed Shiite militias are at the heart of the American backed Iraqi government, the case that more troops will make lead to a "victory" has become much harder to make. 

The Times has a good piece looking at the global fallout from a homemade/bootlegged video captured on a mobile phone, the Iraqi government's very own Macaca moment.

AM Roundup: A new era begins this week

Welcome back all.  This Thursday the Democrats retake control of Congress for the first time since 1994.   The House is poised to move quickly on a variety of fronts, Senator Joe Biden will start a series of hearings on Iraq next week and with a flood of stories this week about the first woman Speaker, it is quickly, very quickly, to start feeling like the dawn of a new era in Washington. 

In news the Times has a very detailed recap of the terrible year in Iraq, the Post has one more story delving into the growing sectarian divide in Iraq and the Times reports on what appears to be progress in mobilizing the world against Iran's nuclear ambitions. 

And on the "New Day" front, the Post previews the legislative strategy of the House Democrats in what will be their first week back in power, and the Times' Carl Hulse writes about the healthy tension in the Democratic Caucus between the recently elected and the more experienced members.

Exciting times all.  Look for much from NDN this week and of course in the weeks and months to come.

The impact of the Saddam video

The Times has a must read piece on the political impact of the now infamous bootlegged Saddam video:

For Sunnis, Dictator’s Degrading End Signals Ominous Dawn for the New Iraq

BAGHDAD, Dec. 31 — For Sunni Arabs here, the ugly reality of the new Iraq seemed to crystallize in a two-minute segment of Saddam Hussein’s hanging, filmed surreptitiously on a cellphone.

The video featured excited taunting of Mr. Hussein by hooded Shiite guards. Passed around from cellphone to cellphone on Sunday, the images had echoes of the videos Sunni militants take of beheadings.

“Yes, he was a dictator, but he was killed by a death squad,” said a Sunni Arab woman in western Baghdad who was too afraid to give her name. “What’s the difference between him and them?”

There was, of course, a difference. Mr. Hussein was a brutal dictator, while the Shiite organizers of the execution are members of the popularly elected Iraqi government that the United States helped put in place as an attempt to implant a democracy.

It was supposed to be a formal and solemn proceeding carried out by a dispassionate state. But the grainy recording of the execution’s cruel theater summed up what has become increasingly clear on the streets of the capital: that the Shiite-led government that assumed power in the American effort here is running the state under an undisguised sectarian banner.

The hanging was hasty. Laws governing its timing were bypassed, and the guards charged with keeping order in the chamber instead disrupted it, shouting Shiite militia slogans.

It was a degrading end for a vicious leader, and an ominous beginning for the new Iraq. The Bush administration has already scaled back its hopes for a democracy here. But as the Iraqi government has become ever more set on protecting its Shiite constituency, often at the expense of the Sunni minority, the goal of stopping the sectarian war seems to be slipping out of reach.

“We speak about the crimes of Saddam Hussein, but now here we are behaving in the same way,” said Alaa Makki, a prominent Sunni politician. “We fear that nothing has been changed. On the contrary, we feel it is going in a worse direction.”

After the invasion, Sunni Arabs, bitter at losing their place, refused to take part in Iraq’s first elections, allowing Shiites and Kurds to sweep to power. Americans here spent the following months persuading the Shiites to let the Sunnis back in.

The idea, at the time, was that involving Sunnis in politics would drain the insurgency of its violence. Instead, the violence got worse, and in February, the long-abused Shiites struck back, using the force of the state ministries and agencies that they now control.

Now, American officials are pressing Iraqi leaders, both Sunni and Shiite, to reconcile and have made it a central demand for continued support of the Iraqi government. But the prospects for mutual agreement seem ever more distant.

“I can’t think of any good reason for any level-minded person to be interested in reconciliation,” one secular Sunni politician said.

That unwillingness, shared by most of the Shiite political elite, is a serious challenge to any new American strategy proposal that President Bush may announce soon.

Also a challenge to the emerging Bush strategy is the Joint Chiefs, who are apparently more in touch with the political reality in Iraq today than the White House, as they have been making the case that more American troops means more violence:

The Bush administration is split over the idea of a surge in troops to Iraq, with White House officials aggressively promoting the concept over the unanimous disagreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to U.S. officials familiar with the intense debate.

Sending 15,000 to 30,000 more troops for a mission of possibly six to eight months is one of the central proposals on the table of the White House policy review to reverse the steady deterioration in Iraq. The option is being discussed as an element in a range of bigger packages, the officials said.

But the Joint Chiefs think the White House, after a month of talks, still does not have a defined mission and is latching on to the surge idea in part because of limited alternatives, despite warnings about the potential disadvantages for the military, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the White House review is not public.

The chiefs have taken a firm stand, the sources say, because they believe the strategy review will be the most important decision on Iraq to be made since the March 2003 invasion.

At regular interagency meetings and in briefing President Bush last week, the Pentagon has warned that any short-term mission may only set up the United States for bigger problems when it ends. The service chiefs have warned that a short-term mission could give an enormous edge to virtually all the armed factions in Iraq -- including al-Qaeda's foreign fighters, Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias -- without giving an enduring boost to the U.S military mission or to the Iraqi army, the officials said.

The Pentagon has cautioned that a modest surge could lead to more attacks by al-Qaeda, provide more targets for Sunni insurgents and fuel the jihadist appeal for more foreign fighters to flock to Iraq to attack U.S. troops, the officials said.

The informal but well-armed Shiite militias, the Joint Chiefs have also warned, may simply melt back into society during a U.S. surge and wait until the troops are withdrawn -- then reemerge and retake the streets of Baghdad and other cities.

Even the announcement of a time frame and mission -- such as for six months to try to secure volatile Baghdad -- could play to armed factions by allowing them to game out the new U.S. strategy, the chiefs have warned the White House.

The idea of a much larger military deployment for a longer mission is virtually off the table, at least so far, mainly for logistics reasons, say officials familiar with the debate. Any deployment of 40,000 to 50,000 would force the Pentagon to redeploy troops who were scheduled to go home.

In the coming weeks Congress must ask the tough questions of this failed Administration, and have them explain in plain simple English how they hope to navigate the terrible political reality of Iraq today.  I reprint something I wrote a few weeks ago:

When the President makes his grand announcement about a "new way forward" in Iraq early next year, it is going to be critical that we judge him not on whether it is a new strategy, but whether it is a better one, one that can plausibly achieve its objectives.  For example, what exactly are the troops going to do in Iraq when they get there? And if this is still a war, as the President describes, who is the enemy and how we will our troops engage and defeat them? Is the enemy the Iranian-backed Shiite militias? The Saudi-backed Sunni insurgents? Al Qaeda itself, a small but growing presence in the West?  Maliki's government, partners with the Shiite militias? The Saudis, who say they will intervene militarily if the Sunni Arabs continue to be targeted by Shiite militias? And if the troops are going in as peacekeepers and not warriors, shouldn't we say that, and admit this is a failed occupation and not a war? 

As has been said by many, there is no longer a military solution to our troubles in the Middle East.  By rejecting the core recommendation of the ISG Report, an enhanced diplomatic track intent on making progress on the political and economic problems of the region, the Administration almost certainly guarenteed that whatever path they followed would be new but not better.

Reflections on an important year

I end the year with a complex set of thoughts and feelings about the year just passed.   Above all else I feel gratitude, and a sense of accomplishment.   Our democracy worked.  The American people, unhappy with their government, choose a different path.  It was an empowering election, one that allowed a whole new generation of Americans to learn for themselves that in our system of government the people are sovereign.  That at the end of the day our destiny is in our hands.  That it is up to us.  It is a vital lesson that I hope the Americans of the 21st century will take with them for the rest of their lives.  It has been, and will be, true that our nation will only be as great, and good, as the American people fight for and demand.   And this year they demanded more, much more.

The two main American ideological movements saw a year of accelerating change.  The great conservative movement of the late 20th century, a modern political machine that I’ve described elsewhere as an Information Age Tammany Hall, finally in total ideological and political control of our government, so utterly failed at the basics of governing in these past few years that it must cause a total reappraisal of the entire conservative experiment, and brought about an end to what we call the era of conservative ascendancy in American politics.

The progressive movement, on the other hand, is clearly going through a long-overdue modernizing phase and is poised for a period of possible ascendency.  We’ve seen the creation of vital new institutions and institutional capacities like America Votes, Blue Fund, Catalist, Center for American Progress, Change to Win, Copernicus, Democracy Alliance, Democracy Journal, Hispanic Strategy Center, Media Matters, Move On, New Politics Institute and many many blogs like Daily Kos and Talking Points Memo.  These groups joined venerable and still productive progressive institutions like DLC-PPI, Emily's List, NDN and the Sierra Club.  New elected leaders are are also emerging, with Cory Booker, Rahm Emanuel, Stephanie Herseth, Gavin Newsom, Barack Obama, Martin O’Malley, Deval Patrick, Kathleen Sebelius, Eliot Spitzer, Chris Van Hollen and Antonio Villaraigosa adding their modern voices to those of already established leaders like Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Bill Richardson. 

But above all else what is transforming the progressive movement is the return of average people to the core of our politics.  Millions of Americans, disappointed by their government, became politically active in progressive and Democratic politics these last few years.  Their hopes, their labor, their passion and their money fueled the defeat of the conservatives this year.  It is a defining attribute of our age that an array of new technological and media tools are allowing many more Americans to participate in our politics in a more meaningful way, and allowing organizations much greater ability to manage and harness this latent activism for their ends.   In the 21st century Americans will be much less “consumer” and “donor” and much more “participant” or “partner.”  Whether progressive leaders can effectively harness this passion and energy with all these new tools, and whether with the great motivator of the Bush presidency waning our enthusiastic progressive partners will continue to give so much of themselves to the country and our movement, is one of the great questions of the day.  On this matter I am optimistic, for too many people in recent years have directly experienced that their own civic participation - voting, volunteering, contributing, blogging - can change the course of history for them to just walk away from politics.

I also end the year angry and frustrated.  The Bush Administration’s recent clumsy, confused and increasingly pathetic efforts to find a new approach to the great calamity of Iraq serves as a stark reminder of how badly we’ve been governed in this decade, and how much weaker he and his team have left this country than they found it.  We leave the Bush era with very little progress having been made on the extraordinary set of governing challenges facing America at the dawn of the 21st century, and lots of new ones created by their historic mismanagement of our government.  To me, these challenges taken together are the greatest set of challenges America has faced since the waging of WWII and the reconstruction in its aftermath.  Think about what must get done – restoring broad-based prosperity in a more virulent age of globalization, finding a new foreign policy path after the neo-con disaster, tackling the structural budget imbalances left by years of out of control Republican spending and drastic revenue reductions, coming to terms with global climate change and the continued environmental degradation of our planet, completing the standing up of the Department of Homeland Security so it can begin to fulfill its critical mission, restoring the integrity of our political system after years of the most corrupt team to ever run our government, re-imagining our health care system, shoring up a broken pension system, better aligning our immigration system to the needs of our economy – the list goes on.  But any one of these items on the list are big things, and yet we have to do all of them, simultaneously, and do them now – all the while trying to restore the nobility of the American experiment.

I end the year feeling that by tossing the failed conservatives from power, our nation has taken a giant step forward to accepting and meeting the obligations and challenges we face as we head further into the 21st century.  It is only a single step among many that must be taken, and as proud as I am of the role I and the entire NDN family played in this important year, I sense that our most critical battles lie ahead, and that they will be much more difficult than what we have faced in the sad and disappointing Bush years.  But as we’ve heard others say, I say “bring it on.”

On cocktails, FDR and absolute sacrilege

Our neighbor and good friend Eric Felten writes a wonderful weekly column for the Saturday Wall Street Journal on spirits and cocktails.  My wife Caitlin and I participated in a little experiment for today's column, creating our own and updated version - with a little help - of FDR's drink, the Old Fashioned.  It is a lovely piece, with lots of photos, so if you can read it online or in the paper it will be worth the extra effort.  Feedback on the FDR-inspired cocktail itself is welcome, of course.

Sigo: helping the unbanked

While there is a great deal of big news today, I want to focus on a good holiday-inspired story buried deep in the NYTimes.  The story is about an innovative new program, "Sigo," designed to help the 10% of those living in the US who are "unbanked:"

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Since coming to this country eight years ago, Jose Dimas has bristled at the $8 fee he often must pay to cash his paycheck. He stews over the $10 charge he faces whenever he wires $150 home to his parents in Mexico.

Daunted by the requirements to open a bank account, Mr. Dimas had long kept his savings hidden in his apartment, and had worried that his money would be stolen.

But now Mr. Dimas, 32, a food preparer at a catering company, has a new tool that has eased his discomfort with all things financial. It is a special debit card, provided not by a bank but by a nonprofit worker center here, enabling hundreds of immigrants without checking accounts or credit cards to keep their cash somewhere safer than beneath their mattresses. The card also makes it easier to shop at stores as well as online.

“This card is better for me for a lot of situations,” Mr. Dimas said. “You don’t have to pay those big charges to send money back to Mexico. And it will be much safer. I don’t like keeping my money in my home. Someone could go steal the money.”

The worker center, called New Labor, normally focuses on preaching about worker solidarity and safety, but after seeing all the hassles that immigrants face with finances, it pioneered the new debit cards. In a survey of 480 immigrants who were members of New Labor and similar worker centers, 47 percent said they had no bank accounts.

Since November, New Labor has provided cards to 200 immigrant members, including some who are here illegally. Three other centers — in Hempstead, N.Y., Chicago and Los Angeles — have begun offering the cards as well, and organizers say they hope to make them available to tens of thousands of immigrants at 140 worker centers nationwide within the next few years.

Several financial experts said the new debit cards — named “Sigo,” combining the Spanish word for “yes” and the English “go” — are an ideal tool for 30 million workers, both foreign-born and native, who lack bank accounts and often face high check-cashing fees and frustrating obstacles in paying bills.

Sigo cards can also help so-called “unbanked” immigrants develop financial sophistication and eventually move into the banking system, these experts said, perhaps to obtain a mortgage or small business loan.

“It’s not just about reducing your financial costs and making your financial life easier, it also helps give you opportunities to get ahead,” said Jennifer Tescher, director of the Center for Financial Services Innovation in Chicago, which provided a grant to develop the program. “It saves you time and makes more products and services available to you.”

I hope anyone reading this story who might be able to help accelerate the adoption of this program across the country will contact the people in the piece and offer their assistance. 

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