Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Nebraskans for Peace: When Hope Becomes Delusion

by Kyle Michaelis
I have no desire to demean the wonderful work done by Nebraskans for Peace, but the self-proclaimed "oldest statewide Peace & Justic organization in the country" seems to be showing its age - demonstrating a disturbing detachment from reality in its latest fundraising letter:
Dear Nebraskans for Peace Supporter,

This is the best time to be working for Peace & Justice in Nebraska in seventy years.

Not since the Depression of the 1930s have circumstances been so favorable. Not even the 'Sixties,' when we still had a Cold War to contend with, were this good.

The letter goes on to write about 1936 as Nebraska's "last hurrah for liberalism," as voters supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt's reelection and sent "Fighting Liberal" George Norris back to Washington D.C. for what would be his last term in the U.S. Senate:
...veering right from there onward, Nebraska would slip into a long conservative coma that - with minor interruptions - has continued pretty much right up to the present day....

But that's starting to change....

Between public dissatisfaction with the course of the war, high energy prices, the shaky economy, and concern over civil liberties, things have gotten so rocky for the White House here in Husker Nation that George Bush's approval ratings have even dropped below 50 percent.

After seventy long years, progressive politics is poised to make a comeback here in Nebraska....

Literally, an oppotunity like this comes once in a lifetime. Together, we can make the most of it.

Well, I hate to rain on anyone's parade, but NFP have put the cart so far before the horse with this letter that it borders on self-parody.

While there are some indications that Nebraskans are turning their back on the Bush Administration, there has been nothing to suggest a willingness on the part of voters to embrace a more progressive political identity. To suggest that the two go hand-in-hand is simply false on its face.

I am not denying that the first fissures in Nebraska's 'red state' mentality may already be showing, but absent validation at the ballot box such a notion remains little more than conjecture.

Hope is a beautiful thing, but - unchecked by reason and out-of-touch with reality - it can do more harm than good.

Of course, the main purpose of NFP's letter is to solicit donations. The organization does a lot of excellent work by which it has proven deserving of such investment. But, this letter falls prey to some of the very worst stereotypes of the ideologue as carnival barker - telling the people what they want to hear rather than telling them the truth.

Frankly, I'm uncomfortable that NFP would suggest the War in Iraq, profiteering by oil companies, and the Bush Administration's treading all over the U.S. Constitution amount to "favorable" circumstances. That we have gotten into so delicate and pathetic a situation is far more a testament to our past failures than it is a promise for our future.

While change is possible in Nebraska, there is - as yet - no reason to believe that change will be for the better. NFP and Nebraska's like-minded liberals will make no head-way with the conservative voting population until they provide a reasonable and measured alternative to the status quo that people actually want and with which they actually relate.

To imagine that we are anywhere close to achieving that recipe for success is utter nonsense. Although NFP can take credit for surviving and advancing some limited causes in recent years, these have not been of the sort to establish any sort of true claim to a more general trend in their favor.

There is a fine line where acceptable spin becomes unacceptable exaggeration - even dishonesty - across which I can't help thinking this letter goes beyond.

Of course, a message of 'things can't possibly get much worse, can they?' isn't likely to rally the troops (and their checkbooks) in the hoped-for manner. Indeed, national trends and polling data do suggest that some degree of enthusiasm may be warranted.

But the perfect, once-in-a-lifetime convergence this letter imagines is not supported by the facts. It has no basis in reality and is, in my summation, refuted by both the anti-war movement of the 1960s and the farm crisis of the 1980s, both of which rallied people for progressive change in a manner that is not yet in evidence and has failed to take form.

None of which is to suggest that such may not be possible in the coming years, but it will take more than platitudes and wishful thinking. It's also going to take a reconsideration of how progressives approach the issues, if not a rethinking of the issues in general.

The only thing as certain as history's repeating itself is the inadequacy of looking to the past for signposts to the future. I'm of the opinion that the politics of 1936 should hold far less sway than our vision - plainly-spoken and clearly defined - for the Nebraska, the America, and the world of 2036.

But, for now, we are stuck in 2006 and must make of it what we will. To say, however, that we have the opportunity to turn the tide and to lay the groundwork for a brighter future is fundamentally different from gathering together to sing 'Happy Days Are Here Again.'

That's not where we stand as a state. It's not where we stand as a nation.

Each day can be a step forward to a better future. Heck, November could prove a giant leap. But, if we allow false confidence to oscure our long-standing need to address our own deficiencies, we will be in for a rude awakening when the system-wide failure of Republican politics translates into little more than marginal gains nationally that won't even amount to a tiny blip of consciousness in Nebraska's ongoing "conservative coma."

In other words: cool it with the rhetoric and the hyperbole. Stay focused on the issues. And, for God's sake, save the party until we actually have something besides trends, hype, and conventional wisdom to celebrate.

Nebraskans for Peace uses as its slogan, "There is no Peace without Justice." I remind them, in the same vein, that "There is no Progress without Truth."

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Party-Hopping in Kansas

by Kyle Michaelis
Nebraska Democrats take note - there is a shift in the political sands in the state of Kansas that should offer some measure of hope for our own efforts at rebuilding our state party and reconnecting with Midwestern and rural voters. Far more substantial than the Republican-for-a-Day phenomenon that swept Nebraska prior to the heated May 9th GOP primary, it seems a number of very high profile Kansas Republicans are switching parties permanently with more in mind than simply being heard in a single election.

Thanks to Josh of the always excellent "Thoughts From Kansas" blog for bringing the following story to my attention:
The former chairman of the Kansas Republican Party jumped ship in a big way Tuesday, switching his affiliation to Democrat amid speculation that he would become Gov. Kathleen Sebelius' running mate.

Johnson County Elections Commissioner Brian Newby confirmed that Mark Parkinson, the state GOP chairman from 1999 to 2003, came to the office and switched his party affiliation shortly before noon.

Parkinson's name has been widely circulated as Sebelius' choice for a running mate as the Democratic governor seeks a second term....

Johnson County District Attorney Paul Morrison also switched parties from Republican to Democrat to challenge Attorney General Phill Kline, a Republican, in the November election.

Republican House Speaker Doug Mays said he was disgusted by Parkinson's lack of loyalty to the party that made him chairman, but he isn't surprised by the rift.

With what sounds like very legitimate Democratic nominees for Attorney General and Lt. Governor emerging from the ranks of Kansas Republicans, it's hard to find much in the way of downside to so exciting a series of developments. This sort of party-poaching may not be the ideal form of candidate development, but it speaks to a political vulnerability that may well find its way northward, helping crack the Republican stranglehold on so many offices within Nebraska state government.

Nothing assured, of course, but certainly grounds for hope and celebration. A New Kansas seems to be in the making. Isn't it possible (and quite reasonable, under the circumstances) that a New Nebraska could be following just behind?

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Heineman's "Objectionable" Approach to the Politics of Prostitution

by Kyle Michaelis
At the close of the 2006 legislative session, I wrote the following about LB 1086:
I'm not defending prostitution, but making hiring a prostitute a felony (on the second offense) is just plain ridiculous. Prostitution is not a good thing, but it does not rise up to the level of social ill that the sad and pathetic individuals on either end of the "transaction" should be considered felons. Shameful and stupid - most shameful of all was that [Gov. Dave] Heineman signed the felony provision into law but vetoed the spending ($1.5 million) to actually help prostitutes get off drugs and off the streets. What a moron.

In response to my questioning of this "get tough" scheme, an anonymous reader defended the underlying legislation while heaping even greater disdain upon Heineman's childish and short-sighted decision to with-hold state funding:
That Heineman vetoed the treatment dollars and merely referred to all actors in this exploitive situation as "criminals" shows him to be a callous man with either a shallow ability to understand complex issues or one who doesn't understand that "being tough on crime" and just locking people up is a political position which doesn't actually benefit society.

Well, it took about 45 days, but it seems the Editorial Board of the Omaha World-Herald finally caught up with the above sentiments and found space to actually call Heineman out for his needless politicization of this issue:
LB 1086 addressed intervention, treatment and education of prostitutes. Once up for final approval, the bill passed 38-3. Approval for the measure's appropriation bill was 35-6.

Unfortunately, Gov. Dave Heineman vetoed the funding for the measure. He termed the funding to be an "objectionable" use, vetoing in April the $1.5 million needed to execute the program over two years. The money would have been distributed to regional behavioral health authorities in areas with high incidence of prostitution.....

Supporting treatment for one ailment, such as meth addiction, and ignoring another, such as prostitution, is illogical, even contradictory, given their inherent ties.

The program that [State Sen. John] Synowiecki worked so hard to promote, and that so many Nebraskans stepped forward to endorse and implement, would have provided an encouraging opportunity to break a revolving door that wreaks havoc on so many throughout the community, including the prostitutes themselves....

The dedication that so many people have devoted to this issue should not be applied in vain.

Considering that Heineman's decision to politicize this issue is the primary reason for this legislation's failure, it's unfortunate that he is not more expressly called-to-task for his illogical choice. By making the moral judgment that prostitutes should not receive assistance breaking free from drug use and a life of crime, Heineman has so clearly sacrificed responsible public policy on an altar of "get tough" rhetoric that it is an outright embarrassment.

How sad to witness this Heineman attempt to pony-up to religious voters by abandoning any claim to Christian ideas of charity and forgiveness. In a political climate where few have the courage to speak-up for the safety and well-being of so low a class of people as prostitutes, Heineman has surely plummeted to a new low himself by singling out these least among us for scorn.

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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

2006 Outlook: The "D"

by Kyle Michaelis
Don Walton of the Lincoln Journal-Star covered the lay of the land in Nebraska's 1st and 3rd District Congressional races in Monday's paper. Of the 1st District race between Freshman Republican Jeff Fortenberry and former Democratic Lt. Governor Maxine Moul, Walton wrote:
The clear favorite at the beginning of this race is Fortenberry.

Moul’s path leads uphill. She doesn’t disagree with that assessment.

“But this is one race where the timing is right,” Moul suggests.

“No doubt,” Fortenberry acknowledges, “Republicans are in a headwind”....

“Any challenger has a tough task,” Moul says. “I know that.”

But, she says, “I think we will be as competitive as anyone ever has been.”

Meanwhile, in his weekly political round-up, Walton writes of the 3rd Congressinal District match-up:
Western and central Nebraska’s 3rd District is going to elect a young congressman for the first time in its history this November....

Next January, the congressman will either be Adrian Smith, who turns 36 this December, or Scott Kleeb, who will be 31.

Both are single, and that may be even more unusual than age. Has there ever been an unmarried congressman from Nebraska? Can’t think of one in modern times; can you?

Already, Kleeb and Smith have agreed to provide voters an opportunity to see them compete on the same stage.

They’ll meet for debates in Scottsbluff, North Platte and Grand Island. Kleeb would like to add debates in Chadron, McCook and Kearney.

The pair will first meet for a forum at Boys State in Lincoln on June 8.

Next Friday, Bob Kerrey will accompany Kleeb on a tour featuring appearances in Scottsbluff, North Platte and Kearney.

I haven't devoted as much attention to either of these races as I would like. But, the fact remains that, right now, there just isn't much to write about because these can't yet be said to be competitive races. Moul and Kleeb both bring a lot of great qualities to their respective Democratic tickets, but it's going to take more than just showing up to pose a significant threat to the entrenched Republican status quo that pervades Nebraska's political consciousness.

I'm not here to tell anyone what they want to hear. Though I sometimes get distracted by romantic ideals of prairie populism and wishful thinking about the fierce independence of the average Nebraska voter, there's no escaping the raw fact that a majority of Nebraskans identify with the Republican Party and do so for reasons that aren't going to change in the next five months. That alone is such a signficant handicap that - absent some real traction building over the next few months - neither Moul nor Kleeb are assured to even crack 40% in November's election.

Both are wonderful candidates - we are lucky to have them. But, let's be honest, until we see a willingness on the part of Nebraska voters to rethink the unquestioning Republicanism that has become their hallmark, truly embracing the chances of any of Nebraska's Democratic Congressional candidates is an invitation to heartbreak. I don't say that out of pity - nor with resentment or self-loathing. But, as Bruce Hornsby and Tupac understood, that's just the way it is.

To be honest, at this stage, electoral victory may be too much to expect in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd Districts. Instead, in the hoped-for reelection of Sen. Ben Nelson and the simple recruiting of three legitimate, hard-working candidates for Nebraska's House seats, 2006's true measure will be its reestablishment of the Nebraska Democratic Party as a relevant political force.

In my opinion, the single most important development in the 2006 election cycle - hands down - is the series of television ads supporting Ben Nelson's 2006 reelection expressly on behalf of the Nebraska Democratic Party. So far, two such ads have run - the first on Nelson's 15 years of leadership in developing ethanol and the second on his role in rural America's battle against the scourge of meth.

They are good commercials - no doubt - emphasizing the multitude of ways Nelson's independence and experience have worked to this state's advantage. But, the fact that these ads state that they are "paid for by the Nebraska Democratic Party" is even more important than their actual content. Why? Because it's the first testament to the fact that the Nebraska Democratic Party even exists in any substantive way that many Nebraska voters have seen in a long, long time.

In what can only be seen as a show of confidence and strength on his part, Nelson's willingness to newly align himself with the Democratic label - even as he spurns it with many of his votes - is the clearest opportunity in years for Nebraska Dems to awaken from their partially self-imposed political exile.

For 2006 to be a success, it must be a year of rebranding and rebirth. Nelson's reelection is, of course, the most essential component to either effort, with his popularity and his style of leadership opening doors in the minds of voters for a new idea (for better and worse) of what it means to be a Nebraska Democrat.

From there - from the standpoint of what is in the best long-term interests of the party - I would contend that our Congressional candidates' willingness to run proudly and openly as Democrats is far more important than their achieving independent victory at the ballot box. The odds are against them either way, but this year has the potential to be the start of something remarkable if the candidates will follow Nelson's lead by no longer running away from the Democratic label and by instead demonstrating by their independence and ingenuity that they can still stand for Democratic principles without being consumed by the negative stigmas that have so long defined the label for Nebraska voters.

Mind you, that's not a call for martyrdom - it's a recognition that there is no escaping the "D" by your name on a partisan ballot. It will either remain a liability - and a crushing one at that - or what that "D" means must begin a transformation. Although candidates can not and should not forsake the values that make the Democratic Party great, they must responsibly reconcile and relate their private beliefs and policy choices with those of the citizens whose support they seek.

National trends will not be enough in 2006 - at least, not in Nebraska. Our down-ballot candidates have only two choices: "D"-ceive or "D"-fine. Many have tried to convince voters the "D" stands for nothing - it's just a label. For such efforts, the party it represents has continued to crumble with nothing to show for it but the disdain of voters who "D"-test being so manipulated.

No, the opportunity is now here to take a different approach - to take that "D" and make of it what they will. To actually win such a campaign might take an enormous investment of resources - likely requiring advertising that our Congressional candidates will not be able to afford - but I sense that even scaled-back efforts along these lines will prove more rewarding than any of the existing alternatives.

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Friday, May 26, 2006

No More on Immigration or Broadband Internet

by Kyle Michaelis
That's a promise - at least for a little while. It's been bad enough what happened to poor Barbaro; no one needs me to be beating a pair of dead horses like I have been for the last week.

So, anyway, the self-described "gun lady" is no longer seeking re-election, stepping out of what seemed to be shaping up into a close race with Wilber Mayor Russ Karpisek in Nebraska's 32nd Legislative District. State Sen. Jeanne Combs is obviously content to go out on a high note after her amazing 'Conceal and Carry' victory that is surely the most important legislation of the last 4 decades!

Whether crying at "Conceal and Carry"s passage, warning that she needs a gun to keep away prostitutes around the state capitol, or posing with her .38 for an Omaha World-Herald photo shoot, that's quite the legacy to be leaving behind. Thanks a lot, Kentucky!

Meanwhile, I have to mourn the loss of what I thought would be one of the most salient themes for Democrats in the 2006 campaign - ending the so-called Republican 'Culture of Corruption.' Well, the Republicans are still worse, but House Democrats have gone so far out of their way to lose this issue that it's almost become a moot point. All the hookers at the Watergate, along with Tom DeLay's resignation as Duke Cunningham sits in prison, can hardly compete with fantastical tales of punching D.C. police officers, Patrick Kennedy crashing his car in a drugged-out stupor, and now William Jefferson's refrigerator full of $100 bills.

Good Lord, talk about clutching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Of course, here in Nebraska, part of me thinks this humbling realization might actually play to our Democratic candidates' benefit. Absent these slip-ups the temptation might have been too great to speak about cleaning up Washington D.C. in partisan terms (as I, myself, have done). But, the problem is no longer confined to the enormous sway of Tom DeLay's campaign cash over Nebraska's Freshman Congressman Jeff Fortenberry. It can't even be limited to talk of K Street Projects and defense contractors purchasing influence.

No, the entire corruption issue can no longer be about pointing fingers. It has to be about pushing for change. Which candidates will advocate real reform? What will those reforms be?

It's official - we have Bipartisan corruption in Washington D.C. By losing the partisan undertones of this issue, though, we might just gain a renewed legitimacy and respectability with Democrats proving their seriousness about the issue by holding their own representatives accountable and by advancing true reform more focused on curtailing the influence of lobbyists and the role of special interests' money in modern politics than on capitalizing for electoral gains.

The problem is no longer that Jeff Fortenberry is a Republican. It's that he's a politician so lost to the Washington D.C. game of securing campaign contributions that, in 16 short months in office, he's already completely lost sight of his constituents' best interests.

It's a better message, to be honest - one more reflective of reality and in line with Nebraska's political climate. Our voters' primary desire is for something more than a rubber stamp in their representation, be it Democratic or Republican. My only regret is that, in my sanctimoniousness, I didn't realize as much sooner.

I was on the bandwagon - imagining this was an issue on which Democrats nationwide could win back the peoples' trust. But, now I see it's more about winning back their faith in democracy itself. A goal like that does not begin or end with this election cycle, and it can't be limited to a single political party. It must be shared by all Americans. Democrats just have to do it better - actually living, running, and winning on the principles they espouse.

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Ask and Ye Shall Receive - Hahn Gets the Attention He Deserves

by Kyle Michaelis
It looks like Friday's Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star will be covering Democratic gubernatorial nominee David Hahn's bold embrace of Nebraska-wide broadband internet service that could open up a new world of potential for our rural economy. Check it out:

See the Omaha World-Herald:
The governor would await the task force's report to the Legislature before deciding his next steps.

In other words, Gov. Heineman endorses two more years wasted - two more years of falling behind (report not due until Dec. 2007). Some leadership there after he helped create the problem by signing the public broadband ban in the first place.

And, see the Lincoln Journal-Star:
Standing in the way is “akin to being against roads in the 1920s,” said Hahn.

The more David Hahn is talking about ideas while Dave Heineman is "unavailable for comment" the more voters are going to recognize who's really fit to be leading this state into the second decade of the 21st century.

Heineman may have the "R" by his name, but Hahn has an actual vision for the future. Compared to a first-rate bureaucrat and servant of the status quo such as Heineman, that's all the difference in the world.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Follow-Up: Dave Heineman's Broadband Betrayal

by Kyle Michaelis
Glad to see others taking notice of the opportunity our politicians are blowing by doing the bidding of the telecommunications lobby rather than tackling head-on the 21st Century challenges facing tech-starved rural Nebraska and doing something about them.

Wednesday's Lincoln Journal-Star editorial reads:
Nebraska needs fast broadband Internet service to prosper in the 21st century. The quickest way to make that vital service available to businesses and consumers in rural areas of the state is to allow publicly owned utilities and locally owned governments to provide it.

But the Legislature threw a roadblock in the path of progress last year when it passed a two-year moratorium on that sort of thing.

A task force was supposed to begin studying the issue. But it has begun to meet only recently.

Meanwhile, access to high-speed broadband continues to spread across the United States, dividing the country into the haves and the have-nots. Thanks to the moratorium, much of Nebraska languishes in the have-not category....

The private sector is not providing broadband. Because government and publicly owned utilities have been blocked by legislation, that means that that no one is providing the service.

Early in the 20th century, Nebraska found itself in a similar situation when the private sector failed to provide electricity to vast swaths of the state. That’s when hardy, self-reliant Nebraskans banded together in the public sector to furnish their own electricity. The legacy lives on today; Nebraska is the only state in the nation where all electricity is publicly owned.

Today, Nebraska’s leaders should follow the sensible example set by their predecessors....

The Brennan Center suggests legislators step aside and let local communities decide for themselves whether they need the public sector to provide one of the 21st centuries necessities. The task force and state senators should pay heed.

I want to commend the Journal-Star for taking such a bold position on this issue. Sadly, the situation is even worse than this story suggests, as the 2-year moratorium left the door open only for the eventual leasing of our public utilities' infrastructure for profit by private corporations. As to any true public broadband service, however, the bill imposed an outright ban, shutting the door firmly in the face of progress.

It is worth noting that the Journal-Star lays blame for this horrible policy blunder entirely at the legislature's doorstep. Curiously, no mention is made of Gov. Dave Heineman's signing this damnable legislation into law. If the legislature truly "threw a roadblock in the path of progress," Heineman was laying nails along the roadway just to make sure our rural economy would go nowhere.

Also curious is the failure, again, to make any mention of Heineman's gubernatorial rival, David Hahn, whose long taken a stance that falls in line with the Journal-Star's call, putting the needs of the people first and thereby directly conflicting with Heineman's corporate-driven agenda. In the midst of an upcoming election, this seems like relevant information that should find its way into the newspaper's pages one way or another.

Although receiving shamelessly little media coverage, Hahn has appropriately responded, daring to call out Heineman for his role as no one else has had the courage to do:
On the day I announced my candidacy in December, 2005 and since, I have advocated Nebraska to be a leader in broadband Internet....

We should develop a broadband information infrastructure that will support Nebraska's urban and rural economy and that we will be proud to hand off to future generations. Like public roads, public power, and public schools; Nebraska-wide broadband Internet is one of those common sense services that is vital to our life together and a bright economic future.

Unfortunately, Governor Heineman slowed Nebraska's leadership in this area by supporting, and then signing LB 645 into law....As governor, I will lead the effort to make Nebraska number one in the provision of affordable broadband across the entire state. We need to be in the fast lane on this initiative instead of idling in the garage....

The Internet was first created and supported by government money and technology. This wonderful communication and commerce system belongs to every Nebraskan; urban, rural, rich, middle class, and poor....As governor I will work with private enterprise, local governments and public power systems to lead the effort to make this a reality in Nebraska.

Impressive on the issues. Willing to say what needs to be said and to actually hold those in power accountable. This David Hahn is a true breath of fresh air in Nebraska politics - especially in contrast to Heineman, for whom it must be said the only thing more stale than his policies is likely to be the rural economy that suffers from his neglect.

Pay heed.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Chuck Hagel: The Sore Winner?

by Kyle Michaelis
Just when I've been feeling most respectful towards Sen. Chuck Hagel comes some added perspective that goes a long way in diminishing the esteem in which he was temporarily held for his work on immigration reform.

When I last devoted significant discussion to the strange dynamic between Hagel and Ben Nelson earlier this year, I remarked:
I've caught wind of numerous suggestions over the years that some animosity exists between Hagel and Nelson. Though it's true extent is unclear and its origin unknown (by me, at any rate), one imagines that it likely goes back to the hard-fought 1996 Senate race that saw Hagel defeat then-Governor Nelson.

From that race, I remember two hurdles Nelson wasn't able to overcome: 1)sharing the ballot with President Bill Clinton (who received less than 35% of the vote in NE against Kansas Republican Bob Dole), and 2)his 1994 campaign pledge to complete his second term as governor, which did not end until 1998...

What else might have transpired in 1996 to cause ill feeling between these two men, I know not, but it certainly wasn't helped by Hagel's own staff partaking in a Republican political stunt last year to blame Nelson for the state's $134 million court settlement resulting from the decades-long Boyd County nuclear waste dump fiasco. Hagel has also been surprisingly out-spoken about the importance of his party's defeating Nelson in 2006, breaking the long-standing tradition of gentlemen's agreements not to antagonize one another (at least, when convenient) between home state senators of different partisan stripes.

Well, fast forward a few months, and the national press has taken notice of the same unfortunate peculiarities in Hagel's approach to Nelson, and it makes him sound like a big baby. Last week's National Journal offers up an article with a little more insight into why Hagel continues to hold a grudge against Nelson, culminating in a zeal for his defeat this November almost Ahab-like in its intensity:
The excitement on the other end of the telephone line was palpable. In an interview with National Journal , Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., was very upbeat about Pete Ricketts, the Republican nominee challenging Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., in November. Hagel clearly has more than a passing interest in the race: His not-so-veiled message is that he will do everything he can to help defeat Nelson.

"You have the difference between a real conservative Republican and kind of a half-way, Democrat/Republican senator," Hagel said in comparing Ricketts to the moderate Nelson, who has cultivated an image as an independent operator in the Senate....

The way Hagel sees it, knocking off his former foe in this year's contest could not only ensure total GOP dominance in Nebraska, it "could very well determine whether Republicans keep control of the Senate."

Although Hagel is known as one of the Senate's most disarmingly blunt members, his open and intense desire to send Nelson packing lays bare the unusually strong tension between these two home-state senators. In the three other states represented by senators who once were electoral rivals, the dynamics are far different, far less combustible. Those six senators—Nevada Democrat Harry Reid and Republican John Ensign; Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Gordon Smith; and South Dakota Democrat Tim Johnson and Republican John Thune--have almost gone out of their way to show that they have buried the hatchet and get along famously today. Not so with the Nebraska senators....

When Nelson was asked whether he was surprised that Hagel seems so focused on defeating him, he didn't hesitate. "No. No," he said. "It goes back to 1996. I got over losing. He never got over winning".....

Back in their 1996 race, Nelson accused Hagel of engaging in fraudulent practices in the business he founded....

Eight years later, in an interview with NJ shortly before the 2004 Republican National Convention, Hagel was obviously still angry. "That was a direct hit on your integrity, your character," he said of Nelson's charges. "It was untrue. I couldn't let that go — I came out swinging"....

"I don't hold grudges — you can't hold grudges," Hagel added. "I never have in my life. But I remember — I am not stupid."

Nelson responded that he, too, has been harshly attacked in political campaigns in the past, but after a race is over, he moves on. "I go back to the 1990 [gubernatorial] campaign, when the incumbent Republican called me everything in the book--a crook and stuff like this," he said. "You would have thought you would see my picture in the post office [on the 'most wanted' list]."

"Hey — I got over winning."

The sore winner is, indeed, a peculiar sort. Democracy is not always pretty - it is often downright stupid and ugly. But, there comes a time when a true leader must rise above bitterness, put aside the past, and get back to the business of governing.

There is no greater vindication than the people's vote. It's unfortunate that's not enough for Hagel, as he persists in seeking revenge for supposed slights now a decade-old.

It's not personal; it's politics. There's more than a bit of truth to that old adage, not as an excuse of poor behavior but as a reminder of what's truly important - what function Hagel was truly elected to perform as a politician and public servant. No one voted for Hagel's personal agenda of political retribution. Nebraskans voted for a man who was supposed to devote himself to representing their interests and to defending the Constitution.

If Hagel wants to take something personal, it should be these obligations and the many assaults against them, not some overblown outrage at offenses long-since forgotten by the voters.

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Monday, May 22, 2006

The Broadband Betrayal Revisited

by Kyle Michaelis
On several occasions last year (1...2...3), I expressed outrage at the state legislature's buckling to the will of the telecommunications lobby and betraying the interests of the common Nebraska citizen, not to mention the state's economic future.

Frankly, the moment Gov. Dave Heineman signed LB 645 into law, outright prohibiting cities and public entities from providing internet service, he declared himself a corporate stooge of the highest order without any true concern for the rural and low-income Nebraskans who would stand to benefit most from government's expanding the availabity and affordability of broadband technology.

With the release of a new report testifying to the stupidity and short-sightedness underlying this legislative blunder, today's Lincoln Journal-Star reports:
...Many Nebraskans have no access to fast broadband service or if they do, it’s pricey because there’s no competition.

The state should allow local governments and public utilities to offer broadband so all Nebraskans have access to inexpensive service, recommends the report prepared by the Brennan Center for Justice and the NYU School of Law.

The report offers information and advice to a state task force created by the Legislature to study Nebraska’s broadband issues. It recommends modifying or repealing the current restrictions on government provided broadband....

The Brennan Center report was submitted by a coalition of organizations that includes the Center for Rural Affairs, Common Cause, Free Press, Media Access Project, the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest and the Rural Policy Research Institute.

The report focuses on rural Nebraska needs. Almost half of the Nebraskans living in small towns or on farms and ranches do not have access to broadband. And many others have only one broadband provider, according to a 2005 Nebraska Telecommunications Association report.

An NTA report of 2006 indicates that 7.4 percent of Nebraska towns (44) have no broadband provider and 44.8 percent (267 towns) have a monopoly broadband provider....

“Private providers have failed to deploy universal, affordable broadband in Nebraska and elsewhere in the country,” the report concludes.

It recommends that the Nebraska Legislature let communities decide whether they want to build a public broadband service by repealing or modifying current law.

Both city governments and public power companies should be able to offer wholesale or retail broadband service to areas where it is now unavailable and to provide competition where there are just one or two providers.

Hampering local communities from responding quickly could mean a loss in of jobs in Nebraska to states that allow their local governments to offer broadband.

Communities with affordable broadband will have a competitive advantage over those that don’t, the report said.

The state can level the playing field by requiring public entities to offer services at or above costs, or by requiring local governments to pay substantially the same taxes as public companies in providing telecommunications services, according to the report.

The legislature banned municipal and public broadband at the behest of multi-million dollar corporations before most Nebraska communities had even considered the possibility. Gov. Heineman, as per his M.O., put short-term political benefit before even the pretense of responsible, forward-thinking government. It was a shameless act of cowardice, tying communities' hands from pursuing the one competitive edge that falls most naturally from our established system of public power.

Hopefully, this report will help open people's eyes to who it is Heineman has truly been serving in his short time in office. And, on this issue in particular, I am proud to say that Nebraskans have a true alternative on the November ballot - Democratic gubernatorial nominee David Hahn has made creation of a statewide broadband infrastructure one of the key components of his vision for a Nebraska prepared for the challenges of the 21st Century.

Although it is not at all an exclusive strategy, Hahn has spoken on numerous occasions of the possible "use of the publicly-owned statewide electric grid in the nation’s only 100 percent public power state to provide high-speed broadband Internet service in all areas of Nebraska as a means of spurring rural revitalization."

Whether or not such a visionary approach is wholly practical, it sure is nice to imagine a governor who pursues opportunities and opens doors rather than closing them before a true debate about the future could even take place. One man follows the money, while the other looks to the future. That's a difference in styles between Heineman and Hahn that I expect will become more and more clear in the coming months.

Hahn is itching to lead this state into new territory, while Heineman has designated himself the defender of the status quo. If voters truly want more of the same and truly believe that Nebraska is on the path to progress, then Heineman is their man. Heck, he's even on record with his intention to seek a second complete term four years from now.

The Heineman Decade - it's yours if you want it. But remember where the Heineman/Johanns status quo has gotten us so far - 49th in economic development just last year.

At the end of eight more years of the same, where will this state stand if it hasn't been moving forward? Just how far are we willing to fall behind? Just how far back can we fall?

And, more importantly, are these questions to which we can really afford an answer?

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Sunday, May 21, 2006

Chuck Hagel Takes Charge

by Kyle Michaelis
Although I'm as bothered as anyone by Senator Chuck Hagel's near-inexplicable flip-flopping on key components of the Senate's immigration bill (exhibit a: deployment of the National Guard; exhibit b: fence-building), I have to admit that just because I don't understand Hagel's votes doesn't justify assuming the worst of them.

In fact, on the basis of today's Washington Post, I have to give Hagel credit for defending the immigration bill before the Senate from members of his own political party. The article explains Hagel's essential role in holding together the Senate's bipartisan coalition by fighting-off a Republican attempt to create a permanent under-class of temporary workers with no available pathway to citizenship. Writing of Hagel as if he were a character in a Frank Capra movie, the Post reports:
While President Bush was on the U.S.-Mexican border Thursday promoting an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, Senate conservatives were persuading a team of White House aides to deny 200,000 low-skilled immigrants citizenship.

In a series of private meetings, the conservatives thought they had convinced the Bush team that as many as 200,000 low-skilled workers who enter the United States under special work visas should not be allowed to stay forever. The plan thrilled conservatives -- but also threatened to rip apart a fragile coalition supporting Bush's call for a comprehensive, and compassionate, immigration solution.

Just as conservatives were declaring White House support for the controversial amendment, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) stormed to the Senate floor to announce that new White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten had assured him that the president now opposed the measure in the name of preserving bipartisan backing. The plan was promptly defeated, and the delicate pro-reform coalition held. For now.....

The dilemma played out publicly Thursday night...After 8 p.m., a succession of conservatives went to the Senate floor to declare Bush's support for their amendment to ensure that temporary work visas really would be temporary.

Then Hagel walked onto the floor, announcing that he and his allies had just gotten off the phone with the White House chief of staff, who had assured them that Bush opposed the amendment.

"The American people have a very low opinion of you, of me, of the Congress, of the president. Read the latest polls," Hagel thundered. "Why are the American people upset with us? Because we are not doing our job. We talk about, 'Let's run to the base. Let's run to the political lowest common denominator.' That is not governing. That is cheap, transparent politics."

Well, the Post makes no bones about who the hero of that story is. "Hagel stormed"! "Hagel thundered"! My God, I don't know if that's the Post casting it's ballot in the 2008 Republican primary or casting Hagel as the next Incredible Hulk (HAGEL SMASH!).

Regardless, Hagel does deserve credit for his role in beating back this assault on the Senate's immigration reform efforts. Though I am oftentimes suspect of Hagel's motivations and - on this issue - confused by some of his positioning, I have a hard time implying, as some would, that this all plays into Hagel's presidential ambitions.

Above, Hagel has risked the ire of every conservative in the country, calling their style of politics an appeal to the "lowest common denominator." That's bold speak from a man who evidently has every intention of seeking the Republicans' 2008 nomination.

I've spent a lot of time this last week pontificating on the immigration bill that stands before the Senate. Although their positions could not be more different, I truly want to believe that both Hagel and Senator Ben Nelson are doing what they think best for the country in their respective approaches to this legislation. It just so happens that Hagel is voting with a coalition that includes about 40 Democratic Senators who have some claim to a principle higher than compromise for compromise's sake. He is also voting for a bill more reflective of the America that I know and love.

Will the House Republicans find it acceptable? I don't know the answer to that, and I REALLY don't think that should be anyone's main concern. If President Bush is serious in his support for comprehensive reform, though, I personally feel the much-weakened Republican majority will fall-in line or risk even greater disaster than that to which they already appear headed.

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Saturday, May 20, 2006

Nelson Declares Immigration Reform Dead

by Kyle Michaelis
All along, Sen. Ben Nelson has been quite upfront about his belief that a comprehensive immigration proposal would go nowhere in 2006. His constant refrain has been, "We have to secure the borders first." Well, with the U.S. Senate now set to pass an immigration bill that opens a pathway to citizenship for undocumented families, that theory stands to be tested.

The Lincoln Journal-Star reports:
Congress appears headed toward a deadlock that will scuttle immigration reform this year, Sen. Ben Nelson said Friday.

If the Senate approves the comprehensive reform bill currently on its way toward enactment, that will lead to a House-Senate conference committee impasse, Nelson predicted.

“Nothing will happen,” the Democratic senator said...“People will come across the border in record numbers (to) get here while they can. And we won’t solve the problem this year.”

Nelson is not the only Senator raising this concern. Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, with whom Nelson worked on his own immigration proposal, declared yesterday "The Senate should be ashamed of itself" for the bill it's advancing.

Now, I appreciate that Nelson has not so-explicitly laid the blame at the Senate's doorstep. It's important to remember that House Republicans' unwillingness to compromise will be just as much to blame for Congressional inaction as anything else. Moreover, President Bush - as a Republican President when Republicans control both houses of Congress - deserves a mighty share of the fault as well. This is what happens when a president has no authority, offers no leadership, and has had no domestic agenda for 5 years beyond making the rich richer.

And, although it's going to piss-off the American public - there is some question whether no bill in 2006 is truly worse than a bad bill that neither side cares for very much. Congress should not just go along to get along on an issue of this much importance. Sure, compromise is a good goal to have, but when it's not possible, it's only right that the decision be left to the American people. That's why we have elections, and - lucky for us - the next one's just around the corner.

To be honest, I'd like to see Nelson just as concerned with creating the best immigration proposal possible as with placating the House's right-wing majority. And, he should be more careful of the company he keeps with Senators such as Sessions who are, themselves, more concerned with Crusade than compromise.

Eventually, the immigration debate is going to come down to who we are as Americans and what our values truly are as a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws. Nelson should take care to be on the correct side of that debate when it finally occurs.

For now, inaction may prove outrageous, costly, and even offensive. But, if a chasm exists so deep and wide, what choice do we have? Give it time and, eventually, the people's furor will give us all the answers that we need.

Such is the beauty (and the danger) of democracy.

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Friday, May 19, 2006

Jim Esch Calls Ineffective Lee Terry to Task

by Kyle Michaelis

I literally have no clue how successful Jim Esch's campaign for Congress will ultimately prove. The prospects for taking on a four-term incumbent such as Lee Terry are never good. Still, Esch has proven that he's a serious candidate, and - more than any other in Nebraska history - his youth-oriented, Internet-focused campaign is going to test the limits and rewards of such an approach in the generally traditional Midwest - even in Omaha, a youth-dominated metropolis by most Nebraska standards.

Clearly, Esch has one of the best campaign websites in the country. The praise heaped on its design has, at times, almost overshadowed Esch's message. Still, Esch fights on, using technology to stay in touch with his supporters like no other candidate in the state. It's really quite impressive. In fact, Esch even writes an online journal (or blog) that he updates almost as frequently as the New Nebraska Network.

Lately, Esch has been particularly focused on taking Terry to task for his inability and unwillingness to distinguish himself as something more than a Republican rubberstamp in Congress. In his most recent post, Esch writes:
I was sent an interesting link today - Among the services offered on Congress.Org’s website is a power ranking for all members of congress. These rankings are based on position, influence and ability to pass legislation. According to these rankings, Rep. Lee Terry was ranked 312 out 438 members of the House. (Jeff Fortenberry and Tom Osborne were 329 and 222 respectively.)

The primary reasons for Rep. Terry receiving such a low ranking were 1) all the amendments he offered were unsuccessful, and 2) he did not advance any legislation in 2005, despite his long tenure and position on committees.

At first I found this hard to believe, I mean Lee has been out in DC for almost 8 years, plenty of time to garner some sort of influence, one would think. So, I decided to conduct a little more research. And, guess what, this was absolutely correct.

According to the Library of Congress of the 36 bills/amendments Lee introduced, only two made it out of committee and were brought to a vote. Both were resoundly defeated.

In what many consider to be one of the worst “do nothing” Congresses in our history, our representative ranks in the bottom 1/3 for his effectiveness. I don’t want to be negative about this but these are the facts. And, it is important people realize them.

Obviously, I think the Second District deserves better and I would like to have the opportunity to prove that I can. Heck, if I only do as well as Jeff Fortenberry as a freshman Congressman, I would only be 17 spots behind where Lee is now.

Esch makes a good point. Terry has eight years of experience under his belt yet has only a sophomoric level of influence. With the importance of Omaha to the Nebraska economy and its vital role as a trade center for the entire country, that's simply unacceptable.

Nebraska's second district does deserve better. Its voters would obviously benefit from representation that puts more of a premium on their interests than those of the Republican Party. Thus, it hopefully stands to reason that they would benefit from electing a Congressman like Jim Esch.

This race is going to stay under the RADAR. That doesn't mean it might not hold-out some surprises come election day. Esch should keep up the good work. He might just make believers out of us yet.

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Coming Attractions

by Kyle Michaelis

Hope you folks don't mind that I'm giving myself a little bit of time to survey the Nebraska political landscape before writing my "Post-Primary Gut-Check" on the Ben Nelson-Pete Ricketts match-up this November. Obviously, it's going to be an interesting campaign that will say a lot about the priorities of Nebraska voters. But what tone this race is going to take in such a strange electoral climate remains to be seen. The only thing we know for certain is that some fat checks are being written behind the scenes and some big dollars are about to start pouring-in.

Stay tuned. As evidenced by Ricketts' assumed membership in the Zissou Society - which should, perhaps, be called the Cult of the Red Stocking Cap - I'm thinking this one might get ridiculous.

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AMNESTY: Hagel Plays the Name Game as Nelson Looks to November

by Kyle Michaelis
Would someone mind explaining to me how anyone can say with a straight face that President Bush's immigration proposal doesn't contain an amnesty component? The facts pretty much speak for themselves - millions who entered the country illegally will have the opportunity to stay put and become citizens if they meet certain criteria.

They might have to pay a fine. They might have to jump through a few hoops. But, at the end of the day, they're going to have the opportunity to become lawful residents, then citizens of the United States. Like it or not - run away from the word as far as you might desire - to the American public, as the immigration debate has been framed, that is amnesty.

But, behold this AP article that quotes our own Sen. Chuck Hagel attempting to argue otherwise:

The Senate agreed to give millions of illegal immigrants a shot at U.S. citizenship and backed construction of 370 miles of triple-layered fencing along the Mexican border Wednesday, but prospects for legislation clearing Congress were clouded by a withering attack against President Bush by a prominent House Republican.

"Regardless of what the president says, what he is proposing is amnesty," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. the lawmaker who would lead House negotiators in any attempt to draft a compromise immigration bill later this year.

The blast by Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, came on the day the White House dispatched top presidential aide Karl Rove to ease the concerns of rebellious House Republicans, and also coincided with a clash among GOP senators on the Senate floor.

"This is not amnesty, so let's get the terms right," Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska lectured fellow Republicans who condemned the bill. "Come on. Let's stop the nonsense."

"It sort of reminds me of the famous line, `Methinks thou dost protest too much,'" responded Sen. David Vitter, R-La., who repeatedly described the legislation as an amnesty bill for lawbreakers.

While it's nice to see Republicans bickering, I can't believe Hagel is going to take others to task for using inconvenient terminology. Who cares? The concept of amnesty may be anathema on talk radio - thanks to their echo chamber, it may even have a negative connotation for much of the American public - but the proposal is what it is.

20 years ago, the Reagan Administration took a similar action. Though they did not choose the language, it has become known as Reagan's Amnesty. Deal with it.

Don't get me wrong - I support the opening of a pathway to citizenship. For two decades, we've all but invited illegal immigration by not enforcing our laws and not securing our borders in the name of corporate profits. After all the exploitation and law-breaking to which we've turned a blind eye, it would not only be impractical but unprincipled to break up millions of families and shatter millions of dreams in the manner House Republicans are advocating.

What I can't believe is that Bush and Hagel would really allow themselves to get caught up in a silly linguistics debate. Sure, thanks to right-wing radio, "amnesty" has become a code word for setting-off racist resentment. But, it says a lot about these Republican "leaders" that they would rather play word games than challenge those who have poisoned the public's imagination with such fear-mongering and scape-goating, attributing every ill in American society to the presence of undocumented workers.

Alas, Bush knows how helpful this right-wing echo chamber has been, and Hagel knows how necessary it will be as he considers running for President in 2008. So, rather than exposing the empty rhetoric for what it is, saying "Damn right this proposal contains amnesty and it's the right thing to do", they attempt to draw false distinctions to shelter themselves from criticism.

It's a genuinely sad display. Hagel was right about one thing - they need to stop the nonsense, and he should be the first to take his own advice.

On a related but separate note, in the Wednesday Senate votes reported above, Sen. Ben Nelson was one of only two Democratic Senators to join with 31 Republicans in a failed attempt to strike the supposed amnesty provisions from the bill before the Senate. Though I understand and appreciate Nelson's contention that such provisions will, at present, only prove a road-block to reform, I would be remiss if I didn't express my disappointment at his vote.

I encourage Nelson to continue to speak-out and to hold-out his more limited Border Security plan as a possible compromise, but that hardly justifies bending the entire legislative process to placate the House Republicans who have clearly gone off the deep end on this issue.

At the very least, Nelson should explain his vote and whether it is an outright rejection of any amnesty provision or if it is grounded in reasoning considerably less dogmatic. Admittedly, amnesty is a tough issue politically, but Nelson can't possibly expect to avoid taking a stand on it for the next 5 months just because he thinks now is the wrong time to take action upon it. Eventually, the people are going to want to know where he stands, and they will deserve a real answer - something more than expressing his desire for a bill acceptable to both houses of Congress.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Update: Hagel's Flip-Flop Semi-Explained

by Kyle Michaelis
In today's Lincoln Journal-Star, Sen. Hagel discusses his sudden and unexplained change of heart in response to President Bush's proposal to use the National Guard to patrol the U.S.'s southern border.

As pointed out in my previous post, Hagel made quite the radical transition from serious doubts one day - shared with a national audience - to wholesale endorsement the next.
“My concerns have been answered,” Hagel said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

Guard troops will not be used for law enforcement, he said, and will provide support as part of their normal two-week training cycles. “They have to train anyway, and it makes some sense for them to be doing something at that time that we need.”

Hagel said he also was assured by the temporary one-year nature of the mission.

Wow, almost makes you believe in the power of the free press - except Hagel hasn't really answered any questions. For instance, does Hagel no longer believe the National Guard is being over-burdened? Or, for that matter, what assurances does he have that this mission will truly be temporary? If it's all a matter of faith in President Bush, that's not going to cut it with the American people....not anymore, not even in Nebraska.

Meanwhile, some would be surprised to see Hagel's more humble counterpart, Sen. Ben Nelson, emboldened and ready for battle, holding Bush responsible for the years of inaction on border control that have gotten us to this point.

Of course, if I had any faith in President Bush's ability to lead, I would take serious issue with Nelson's eagerness to put aside comprehensive immigration reforms and to focus on securing the border. If Bush had not spent the last six years backing down from any fight with the self-proclaimed king-makers on his party's extreme right-wing, I might be able to take his call for true reform seriously.

Sadly, that's unlikely to prove the case, meaning Nelson could well prove a visionary by long-ago recognizing the Congressional willpower is lacking for anything but the piecemeal compromise he's proposed. That's unfortunate, but - unless a groundswell of public support shakes Republicans in the House from their unthinking and insensitive demands - it may be the best for which we can least, if you want to see any action taken before November's elections.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Chuck Hagel's Self-Contradiction Addiction

by Kyle Michaelis
This March, I remember being flabbergasted when Sen. Chuck Hagel announced on ABC News' This Week that, in Iraq, America had "achieved victory." Not only did this contradict his famous August 2005 statement on the same program that "By any standard, when you analyze 2 1/2 years in Iraq ... we're not winning," but Hagel proceeded to comment in the March 2006 interview:
Are we better off than we were three years ago? Is the Middle East more stable than it was three years ago? Absolutely not.

So, we're losing, but we've won? We've won, but we're actually worse-off than we were before the war? Anyone else confused here (besides Hagel, which goes without saying)?

Believe it or not, though, I actually refrained from criticizing this little bit of cognitive dissonance at the time because I do appreciate Hagel's willingness to speak-out on Iraq and contribute to the national debate. I can't very well get on his case for not making sense and contradicting himself when so many other politicians, particularly other Republicans, offer only silence.

So, in my own way, I gave Hagel a pass. Iraq's a tough issue. Besides, I don't take any particular joy in lifting quotes and manipulating soundbytes for my own purposes. Context matters. If I'm not going to condemn John Kerry's unfortunate "I voted for the war before voting against it", I am inclined to give Hagel the benefit of the doubt when he says "we achieved victory" though "we're not winning."

Well, that was on Iraq - a war that trips up everyone. But, this week - again, on ABCs This Week - Hagel's playing both sides again, presenting one face on Sunday and another on Monday. Only, now the issue is immigration, one on which I'm not inclined to give Hagel a pass just for opening his mouth.

On Sunday, before President Bush's address to the nation calling for the National Guard to temporarily guard our Southern border, Hagel said:
We’ve got National Guard members on their second, third and fourth tours in Iraq...We have stretched our military as thin as we have ever seen it in modern times. And what in the world are we talking about here, sending a National Guard that we may not have any capacity to send up to or down to protect borders? That’s not their role....

It's a short-term fix, and I'm not sure it's a wise fix.

Seems cohesive enough. Hell, sounds damn reasonable. Except, on Monday night, less than 48 hours later, Hagel was already singing a different tune, praising Bush's proposal to the heavens as if he'd been sold on it from the beginning. He released a statement to the press reading:
I support everything the President said tonight.

Excuse me, Senator Hagel, but do you mind explaining what's changed? Is the National Guard suddenly spread less thin than you'd thought the day prior? Has the role of the National Guard suddenly changed overnight? How on Earth did questioning the wisdom of a "short-term fix" become an unqualified endorsement of the same proposal?

There's something not right here. The citizens of Nebraska deserve some sort of explanation of how Hagel reconciles his Sunday morning persona with the face he wears the rest of the week. And, Hagel owes this country better leadership, as a United States Senator, than speaking out of one side of his mouth to a national audience and another to voters at home.

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A Different Take on the Hergert Trial

by Kyle Michaelis
The Lincoln Journal-Star's Nate Jenkins actually did a very nice job of blogging on most of the important moments during David Hergert's impeachment trial at the Journal-Star's "Around the Rotunda."

Of course, I disagree with Jenkins on a few points - especially the value to Hergert's defense of former Regent Don Blank's admission of his own campaign violations. Blank's conduct was so different by degree and kind that I can hardly see the relevance. That mistakes are made, that they are made quite frequently, was never in question. But, Hergert's "mistakes" were nothing of the sort. He stood to gain too much after too many warnings for his misconduct to have been anything but intentional. Therein, lies all the difference in the world.

Still, Jenkins did some commendable work - certainly one of the more interesting contributions yet to Nebraska's online political discourse. For those of you who weren't able to watch the trial for yourselves, I suggest you give it a read. I was only able to attend the first day of trial, when Hergert's demeanor was totally opposite the relaxed and confident picture painted by Jenkins. Reading body language is always going to be fairly subjective, though, and it does seem reasonable that Hergert should have grown more comfortable as the trial progressed, whether guilty or not.

All-in-all, Jenkins puts too much emphasis on humanizing Hergert and pays too much deference to the defense's oftentimes specious arguments. But, perspective is good and I personally appreciate the effort (and the hours) that went into making these reports. I just regret that I wasn't able to attend the trial more myself, so I could offer a more substantive and effective counterpoint.

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Believe It: A Blue Nebraska

by Kyle Michaelis

My God, that's a beautiful site. The numbers are in from Survey USA's latest state-by-state tracking poll for President Bush's approval rating, and above is the picture of America as it stands today.

And, for the first time, Nebraska has joined the ranks of those rejecting the Bush Administration, disapproving of Bush's performance by a margin of 51 to 47%.

Now, despite the illustration above, this blue doesn't mean "Democrat" - not here in Nebraska, not in lots of places. But, it does mean we're sick of the lies. We've had enough of the corruption in Washington D.C. We've seen where Bush is leading our country, and it's not where we want to go.

See that blue for what you will. A sign of things to come? A desperate nation's united call for renewed purpose and a fresh vision? A thunderous, one-word question of "WHY?" that has for too long gone unanswered and, too often, not even asked?

Why 2,400 dead? Why more tax breaks for the rich? Why an energy bill that was a give-away to the oil industry as it reaps record profits on the backs of America's working people? Why a budget defecit? Why $9 trillion in debt? Why breaking faith with and abusing the National Guard? Why warrantless wiretaps? Why 50 million without health insurance?

In Nebraska, 51% are finally asking these questions. 51% are finally expecting some answers . . . and some action. That's a good sign. It's a good start. But, for now, that's all it is. It's up to us to turn this budding potential into actual progress.

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Thoughts at the Close of David Hergert's Impeachment Trial

by Kyle Michaelis
Or, "The Last Stand of the Degenerate Regent";
Or, "David Hergert: The Long Goodbye".

After enjoying one day's attendance at the impeachment trial of Regent David Hergert before Nebraska's Supreme Court, as well as numerous hours of the televised spectacle (including my favorite highlight that saw State Senator Ernie Chambers fill-in for Hergert, reading Hergert's statements from the witness stand in a purple t-shirt), I am more firmly convinced that Hergert deserved his impeachment than ever before.

As I wrote upon his impeachment by the state senate last month:
No one has asked for Hergert to be singled out for punishment. Hergert chose to make an example of himself by the extent of his crimes and his shamelessness in avoiding accountability for them. He may imagine some sort of vindication by the Supreme Court, but Nebraskans know better. Hergert's entire defense is one of technicalities. On principle, he doesn't have a leg to stand on. Even if Hergert can escape being removed from office, he is and shall forever remain an emabarrassment to the voters of Western Nebraska whose trust he so abused.

If anything, the case against Hergert is even stronger at the closing of his trial than most people considered it at the time of his impeachment. Although I was not an entirely neutral observer, prosecuting attorney David Domina established a compelling and highly damning portrait of Hergert's conduct that - without a doubt - justified the legislature's action.

Hergert's defense, on the other hand, was not only unconvincing but also insulting on its face. I can hardly imagine the audacity it takes to hold onto this office, refusing to resign, after his attorneys' constant refrains emphasizing Hergert's incompetence, his disorganization, and - let's face it - his stupidity. Never would I have imagined we'd witness an elected official working so hard to prove just how little he knows.

In hopes of cracking the solid inference of Hergert's intentional violation of the state's campaign finance laws, his defense threw everything out there that it could, none of it amounting to very much at all. To paraphrase (and mock) the meat of Hergert's defense, his attorneys could honestly do no better than: "If his office was a pit, you must acquit."

Also known as "the Messy Office Defense", it's hard to imagine the Supreme Court taking seriously so pathetic an attempt at an excuse for Hergert's breaking the law. No amount of disorganization or passing the blame onto Hergert's secretary of 30 years could justify the especially damning and, to my knowledge, new revelations as to the full extent of Hergert's fraudulent campaign finance reports.

Needless to say, every mention of Hergert's shady dealings with the GOP hitmen/opposition researchers at Jackson-Alvarez suggested a candidate well aware of the dangerous game he played. Add in the fact that he had run for office previously, had been EXPRESSLY warned after his violations in the primary, and had repeatedly changed his story in an apparent attempt to cover his tracks, and Hergert's ship should be sunk.

In my mind, the only question that remains undecided is whether Hergert's intentional crimes amount to impeachable offenses under Nebraska's constitution. Here, the Supreme Court is the only body capable of making so important an interpretative decision, likely delving into linguistics, constitutional intent, and a great deal of contrasting case law from across the country.

Why Hergert would subject himself to this is hard to say. Seeing him, for the first time, in person on the first day of his trial, it was clear how nervous and uncomfortable Hergert was. I would have almost felt sorry for him had he not brought this entirely upon himself. As is, I suppose we should all be grateful that Hergert's pride is providing us the opportunity to dust-off Nebraska's constitution and to discern exactly what it entails.

A costly lesson, to be sure, but it will be essential to ensuring - one way or another - that this state will next time be better equipped and able to hold the likes of Hergert accountable.

And, yes, there will always be a next time. This is politics - this is power - there's no need to worry about that.

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Sunday, May 14, 2006

Heineman vs. Hahn: Post-Primary Gut-Check

by Kyle Michaelis
There are many theories out there as to why and how Gov. Dave Heineman vanquished Coach and Congressman Tom Osborne in last Tuesday's Republican primary, becoming the new front-runner in the race and earning the chance to be elected in his own right.

Needless to say, it was an impressive performance - Heineman's 50% to Osborne's 44% besting my own estimation that Osborne would squeak-by on election day and even those polls towards the end that had Heineman up by a lesser margin. As even Heineman's elated campaign manager, Carlos Castillo, stated in today's Lincoln Journal-Star, "I thought it would be closer. It’s Tom Osborne."

What's hard to say is whether Heineman's surprising performance is more a commentary on the candidates or on Nebraska's Republican voters. The other important question that arises is what this means for the general election and the prospects for Democratic challenger David Hahn.

There is certainly some evidence to support the notion that Osborne was too independent for Nebraska Republicans' tastes. For a party that has become accustomed to George W. Bush's Patriotism = no-questions-asked style of "leadership", it's understandable that Osborne would be considered something of a threat.

Sure, he's been a lap-dog for the Republican leadership in Congress for six years, but he hasn't needed to be. His freedom from the corporate and special interest PAC money that pervades Republican politics was a needless risk when Heineman proved more than happy to pick up the slack.

And, despite his voting record, it could be said that Osborne has never exercised a suitable degree of conservative zealotry to please his party's right-wing. I mean - let's face it - the man is no Adrian Smith.

The extent to which his support of in-state tuition for undocumented students cost Osborne votes is hard to say. It's also hard to say how much Heineman benefitted from his politically-advantageous defense of rural and suburban school districts in their respective battles. But, with Republican voters in particular, there's no doubt these issues chipped-away at what would have otherwise been Osborne's base.

Of course, there's no end to the theories of how Osborne lost this race. What's far clearer is how Heineman won it. He followed the political winds with expert precision and took advantage at every turn of the connections he'd made after years in the trenches of Republican Party politics.

As for what this foretells in November, who really can say? I've never put too much faith in election forecasting - even my own - and the Osborne-Heineman race certainly hasn't done a thing to change that.

To those Democrats who've long thought Heineman would be an easier match-up for their candidate, Hahn, I fear conventional wisdom may - again - have led us astray. Either Republican was going to come out of the primary the favorite; no one was under any illusions otherwise. The main difference is that Heineman comes out of this primary with "the big MO!" - momentum.

Osborne, on the other hand, even in victory, would have come out of this primary weakened in stature and proven a generally ineffective campaigner. I would also propose that Hahn's greatest strengths - his youthful vigor and vision for Nebraska's future - would have posed a much starker contrast with the aging Osborne.

As the younger candidate (than Osborne), the more effective campaigner (than Osborne), and the incumbent, Heineman is going to be tough to beat. That becomes even clearer when you add in the fact that Heineman's clearly positioned himself with organized labor and the GOP's core constituencies as the heir to the Johanns legacy - a legacy of mostly inoffensive political opportunism that voters have thus far accepted without question.

The trick for Hahn - and it's a mighty one - will be convincing voters to break with the Johanns/Heineman status quo, which has hovered near a 70% approval rating for years, no matter how poor the state's economic performance or how burdensome its tax structure. So far, voters have failed to hold the state's chief executives responsible for the faults of their administrations - whether appointing a drug addict to the state legislature, hand-picking a corrupt State Treasurer, or leaving the child welfare and Health & Human Services systems disastrously underfunded and underperforming at great human cost.

The evidence is there. No one has been able to make it stick. If Hahn's going to have a chance in November, he's got to do precisely that. It's not an impossible task, but it's not an enviable one either.

Hahn can win the battle of ideas, but he won't be able to win the election on vision alone. Voters have to take this campaign seriously first, and that requires their recognizing the stakes. Heineman has to be put on the defensive, the sooner the better. That's not a call for getting personal, but Hahn has no choice but to go negative. Simply put, if voters go into that ballot box content with the last eight years of Republican leadership, Heineman comes out the winner...probably by a very wide margin.

Heineman is the status quo. Without saying so, he will try to make that his strength. It worked in the primary, in part because Osborne was never willing to challenge Heineman and Johanns' records. That assumption may have been fatal to Osborne's campaign. For Hahn to make a similar assumption would mean the end of his campaign before it has even started.

Nebraskans do deserve better than Heineman/Johanns, but they haven't realized it yet. And they won't unless someone forces them to it.

Our complacency is deeply-rooted. Our Republican-leanings are well-entrenched. Before Hahn can win on the ideas, Nebraskans need a wake-up call.

We need a true picture of where this state stands and how its current leadership has failed before the possibility of change will ever capture our imagination. On a gut level, many of us know Nebraska is not fulfilling its potential, but we need the why and the how put in words for us. We need the reminder that we should be doing better before the explanation of how we will do better carries any weight.

If Hahn accomplishes that - what no one else has been able to accomplish over the last eight years - then, we will have the contest this state deserves come fall. And, I truly believe, that's a contest Hahn can win.

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Journal-Star Double-Standard

by Kyle Michaelis
Last week, I denounced a Lincoln Journal-Star editorial for its conspicuous discussion of Congressional corruption without a single mention of the Republican Party's overwhelming dominance in the field. In fact, every instance of corruption the Journal-Star singled-out was committed by a Republican - with the complicity and some even to the benefit of Nebraska's own GOP Congressmen - yet the title "Republican" never even appeared in the article.

"Okay," I told myself, "they're a newspaper. They're trying to avoid making this a partisan issue - though, by its very nature and who holds the power in Washington D.C, that's already what it is. Still, I should respect such an effort to serve the public, no matter how misguided and unproductive."

Fair enough. I could have left it at that. After all, it's not like the bias I perceived was so blatant that it might not have been a simple case of journalistic oversight. And so I would have moved on...if two of the last three Journal-Star editorials had not played so perfectly into my fears of GOP partisanship on the part of the editorial board.

First, Friday's editorial was little more than a back-handed slap-in-the-face to the Democratic Party masquerading as praise for Sen. Ben Nelson:
Nebraska’s Ben Nelson was the only Democrat in the U.S. Senate to sign on to a bill that would have allowed small businesses to join across state lines to buy health insurance.

Too bad Nelson’s Democratic colleagues were more interested in partisan dust-ups than making a conscientious effort to solve one of America’s major health problems.

On Thursday, the Democrats successfully filibustered the bill.

There are about 46 million uninsured individuals in the country. By some estimates, the legislation sponsored by Nelson and Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., would have reduced that number by as much as a million....

Democrats have opposed the bill on the grounds that its coverage would be exempt from state requirements that insurance cover things such as mammograms and diabetes supplies....

Lack of good faith on the negotiations on the bill was shown by Democratic attempts to attach non-germane amendments such as expansion of stem cell research and an extension of the May 15 deadline for application for Medicare drug prescription benefits.....

Since 2000, group premiums for family coverage have grown by about 60 percent. Small businesses are hard-pressed to keep up with the cost. Nelson’s Washington office estimated that 20,000 small businesses in Nebraska would be included in the legislation.

Those problems will only keep getting worse until more members of Congress emulate Nelson’s willingness to focus less on partisanship and more on the search for workable solutions.

No pretense of nonpartisanship there. After being so cautious and gun-shy on ethics reform, look at the way they pull the trigger with Democrats in the cross-hairs.

With the shenanigans pulled by Congress, particularly in the budgeting process, it's ridiculous that the Journal-Star would call a prescription drug benefit extension "non-germane" to any bill addressing the nation's health care crisis. Honestly, it seems quite reasonable, just the effort at compromise to make this proposal acceptable to both parties that the Journal-Star supposedly wanted to see. Except, it seems what they really wanted was for Democrats to roll-over and give-give-give without expecting anything in return.

And, nice to see the Journal-Star protecting America from health insurance coverage that includes mammograms and diabetes supplies. How dare those Democrats have any standards or expectations of quality care?

But, the worst thing about this editorial is the way it seems to praise Nelson while helping pave the way for his defeat in November. It's clear Nebraska voters are very fond of Ben Nelson - he's one of the most popular leaders this state has ever seen. There's absolutely no way that he's going to lose in November on his own merits.

This editorial, however, plays perfectly into the hands of Republicans' only hope of defeating Nelson, wrapping the "D" by his name around his neck like a noose and praying that will be enough to get voters to play executioner to their own self-interests, to their common sense, and to their well-deserved affection for a public servant of Nelson's caliber.

Now, on a new issue, taking aim at a new target - domestic spying - look at how the Journal-Star pulls back from its partisanship when Republicans are again the natural focus of their criticism:
The revelation that the Bush administration has been secretly collecting phone call records of ordinary Americans raises the question of whether bedrock American values are being eroded.

The enormous scope of the program as reported by USA Today doesn’t jibe with the administration’s earlier assertions that its surveillance was limited to conversations with an international connection.

Congress needs to find out what the Bush administration is doing in the name of protecting the country. The secrecy that surrounded it and the denials that preceded its exposure provoke suspicion that it may not have been conducted with proper oversight.

President Bush says that appropriate members of Congress were briefed and approved the program, but Sen. Chuck Hagel, a senior member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he did not know of the program.

From this perspective it seems like Hagel should have been consulted. The administration should not be allowed to get away with checking only with a few compliant cronies in Congress.

Quick polls showed that most Americans didn’t feel threatened by the program. But they should be. The Bill of Rights that dates back to the founding of the country has the specific purpose of limiting the exercise of government power against individuals.

Sources told USA Today that the National Security Agency, which began the program after Sept. 11, 2001, has amassed the “largest database ever assembled in the world.”

Sources say that the companies did not turn over names, street addresses or other personal information, but that information can be obtained fairly easily by cross-checking with other databases that are public.

Knowledge is power. Think of how that secret trove of information could be misused by unscrupulous officials trying to collect dirt on their political enemies, whether they be someone like Karl Rove or Hillary Clinton....

Like previous Bush administration grabs for power, the NSA program was justified on the grounds that it was necessary to protect Americans in the age of terror.

But as Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., put it, “The idea of collecting millions or thousands of phone numbers, how does that fit into following the enemy?”

With each new disclosure about government surveillance in the United States, the Bush administration has tried to cobble together legalistic justification for its actions.

This time, the administration shouldn’t be allowed to wriggle away without a thorough investigation. American tradition and values must be protected not only from terrorists, but also from misguided officials who think themselves above the law.

A good editorial? Yes. One that I agree with? Absolutely. But, how can I turn a blind eye to the fact that, after the Journal-Star made a partisan issue of the Nelson editorial, it here fails to point out that it's been no-questions-asked Republicans and "a few compliant REPUBLICAN cronies in Congress" who have enabled Bush's every infringement on our civil liberties.

Why it was only two months ago that the same Chuck Hagel and the same Lindsey Graham lionized above already rolled-over for the Bush Administration by voting not to hold hearings investigating these domestic spying activities.

They have had their chance to do the work demanded of them by the Constitution and the American public, but they chose to put their Republican Party before those responsibilities. The Journal-Star writes as if that didn't happen - as if that hasn't been the case for the last 6 years. In fact, look....besides a single "R" by Graham's name - when he's being presented in an underservedly positive light - again, you won't see any hint of the "Republican" label under which this dangerous power grab is being conducted and enabled.

If that's not indicative of a double-standard by the Journal-Star, then I can't imagine what would be. I hate running the risk of being "the boy who cried wolf" in instances of journalistic bias, but, here - with evidence like this - what choice do I have?

Readers deserve better. This just plain stinks, and I'm not afraid to say it.

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Friday, May 12, 2006

Read the NNN Interview w/ Barack Obama

by Kyle Michaelis
Also, for complete election results from Tuesday's primary, see here.

I'll be commenting about the outcome and aftermath throughout the week. In other words, hold your horses.

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Congressman Lee Terry on Comedy Central

by Kyle Michaelis

For a Republican Congressman, I have to give Omaha's Lee Terry credit for one thing - he tries very, very hard to be cool. Sadly, his efforts seem to fail for two main reasons: a)he's a Republican; and b)he's Lee Terry.

In other words, the guy's a dork. Everyone knows it, too. Still, you can't blame Terry for his continued attempts to overcome this unfortunate disposition.

In fact, it was kind of sad a few years back when Terry tried to build a fundraiser around a Madonna concert. But, no matter how big a fan of the "Material Girl" Terry might be when singing to himself in the shower, the Religious Right and Democrats (always an interesting combination) were right to call Terry on his hypocrisy for consistently voting with his party to impose morality on the American public while his re-election campaign attempted to profit from an entertainer who made her name and career bringing SEX into the mainstream.

The whole hypocrisy-thing didn't seem to bother, but, when it became clear religious groups might take offense, Terry cancelled that fundraising effort. Very not cool.

Now, Terry is making another attempt at long-desired but ever-elusive coolness. On Wednesday night, he appeared on Comedy Central's highly popular The Colbert Report, which has achieved a degree of notoriety for its incessant mockery of Fox News-style "journalism" and for its host's controversial lampooning of President Bush at the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner two weeks ago (which can and should be viewed here).

Terry's appearance is a continuation of Steve Colbert's "Know a District" series in which he promises to interview (and mock) every Congressman and Congresswoman in the country. So far, it's been a huge success, and most Representatives have played along quite nicely.

Terry's appearance on The Colbert Report, the first by a Nebraska Rep., can be viewed in its entirety here. Some highlights include:
-Colbert declaring Terry's Second Congressional District "the part of Nebraska with people."

-Terry wisely deflecting Colbert's asking "What else is bland" about Nebraskans besides their accents with "That's a good question."

-A disturbingly sexual discussion about how good Nebraskans are at packing meat that ends with Terry announcing, in Nebraska, "You can get it as hot as you want it."

-Colbert to Terry: "I'm not suggesting you are a Nazi. I'm saying you support some of the Nazi's aims."

It's certainly a fun watch, though it's hard to tell whether Terry was in on many of the jokes. From the look of it, he was either going for dead-pan humor by playing things straight or else he was just entirely out of his element.

Does the interview succeed at making Terry seem any cooler? Not really. I mean, the guy is still a Republican, and he's still Lee Terry. That he showed a willingness to go on the show, however, does speak somewhat in his favor - suggesting Terry at least attempts to have a sense of humor.

Even if Colbert did run a few circles around Terry, this appearance was probably a good move politically. In November, Terry will be facing a very youth-oriented challenger in Democrat Jim Esch.

In its little way, Terry's appearance might make him seem less out-of-touch with Omaha's students and young voters, an emerging force to be reckoned with in the city's political scene. Alas, he's still not going to be cool - not by any stretch of the imagination - but at least young people now have a reason to know who Terry is besides his voting to raise the interest rates on their student loans so the wealthiest 1% of Americans could have a bigger tax cut.

And hey, if nothing else, the guy handles being called a "Nazi" pretty well. Take that for what you will.

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