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The Brutal Education of a Neophyte: An Excerpt from Left Out!

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The following is the Introduction to Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush by Joshua Frank, which was recently published by Common Courage Press.

At the naïve age of 18, while still in high school, I had the pleasure of flying across the country to Washington, DC, for a weeklong youth workshop on leadership and democracy. I remember the teary excitement I had, knowing I was about to meet both of my Montana senators. Back then I was a proud registered Democrat. Having joined the party only two months earlier, the prospect of rubbing shoulders with a veteran of my party, I thought, was sure to be the highlight of the visit.

I've been on a bad trip ever since, culminating in the realization that the Democrats, like the Republicans, are on the wrong side of justice. I had hoped this episode was an anomaly. But unfortunately the anomalies began to stack up, one after another, and a new reality soon set in. What I've learned since is maddening: integrity and the Democrats don't mix. What the Democratic Party represents today is a train wreck of ideals that has been derailed deliberately. Too bad I had to learn the hard way.

The swank décor of the hallways on the Hill in DC mesmerized me as I winded through the legislative chambers. The bright carpet and attractive young interns meandering around the foyers made me think that perhaps politics had its subtle rewards. My intrepid journey from wing to wing led me to the bustling office of the Montana Senator who would change my life, Mr. Max Baucus.

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Max wasn't in, however, so a cheery office assistant led me to a committee meeting that the Senator was attending. "It will be just a few minutes," she said, continuing to chat with me about the beauty and serenity of Montana. She had grown up in Great Falls or somewhere nearby, and missed the quiet open range and starry nights. I must have reminded her of what she was like before deciding to test the murky waters of Washington politics.

A few minutes later, Max scurried out and shook my hand as if I were the elected official he had traveled a thousand miles to meet. "So glad to finally meet you," he said. "How in the hell does he know who I am?" I thought. He didn't, of course. He was just politicking.

Max wasn't a good ol' boy like Conrad Burns, his Republican rival from Montana, who said during his first campaign in 1988 that he would help single mothers by "[telling] them to find a husband." But Max was sleazy in his own right. His gaudy single-knot tie and wing-tip shoes caught my eye immediately. I remember wondering how long Mr. Baucus had been away from the Big Sky Country. I didn't really care, though. He was the Democrat I had come to see.

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I asked Max about Washington life, and we poked fun at Conrad Burns, whom I had met earlier in the day. Whereas Baucus' busy over-packed office was full of citizens who seemed to care, Conrad's quarters were filled with wide leather couches, southern blonde assistants, and trophy animals that hung on his plush papered walls. We joked about Burns' assistants who were advising him on how he should vote on specific legislation even though they had never even traveled to Montana. I thought to myself, "Man, Democrats really are a lot cooler than Republicans."

It didn't hurt that Max knew my uncle, who ran a little grocery store in Lockwood, a small town outside of the city where I grew up. It made me think Max was one of us, a regular guy who represented regular folks. I let the used car salesman attire slide; the guy was all right.

My trip ended soon thereafter. I had met some interesting people, seen a lot of monuments and museums, and was enthralled with how the system actually worked. Or at least I thought I understood how it all functioned. The runners, the lobbyists, the rookies, the senior congressional leaders, the reporters, and oh, those interns. I thought I had it down. I couldn't wait to get home to tell my family what I'd learned, whom I'd met, and how Senator Baucus knew my dad's brother. I was even contemplating the best way for me to help in his upcoming election campaign. As a Democrat enthusiast, I was much like Howard's Deaniacs, who canvassed my neighborhood daily with their cheeky grins and bouncy gaits. Yeah, I was annoying as hell.

It wasn't more than six months later that I was knocked to my senses. The fairytale had ended. I read in the newspaper that my buddy Max had supported the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) a few years prior. By then, I was interested in environmental issues and came across the effects of NAFTA and the senators who supported it. Baucus was at the top of the hit list. I couldn't believe it. I felt as if I had been two-timed by a corporate fraud who used phony idealism to woo me. I was the victim of political date rape.

Upon further exploration, I learned that Baucus sat on influential congressional committees, including the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Environment and Public Works, and Finance and Joint Taxation. I learned how this man whom I had come to admire -- for no real reason other than his bashing of a Republican -- had succumbed to the interests of campaign contributors time and again. I found out how his seat on the Finance committee scored him bundles of cash from corporations I had never even heard of, including JP Morgan, Brown & Foreman, and Citigroup. I knew these guys weren't from Montana.

I also learned how my hero supported welfare reform, Fast Track, and President Clinton's Salvage Rider Act, which raped the Montana forests I loved so dearly. And a year later in college I read an old article by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair in The Washington Post, which disclosed how actor Robert Redford had campaigned for Baucus by dropping letters into the mailboxes of elite Hollywood liberals, hoping to entice them to donate money to the Montanan for his astute convictions for environmental justice.

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But as St. Clair and Cockburn put it so poignantly, "Across the length and breadth of Congress, it is impossible to uncover a more tenacious front-man for the mining, timber, and grazing was Baucus who crushed the Clinton administration's timid effort to reform federal mining and grazing policies and terminate below-cost timber sales to big timber companies subsidized by the taxpayers."

I was indignant. "How could he...?!" I pondered. "If the Democrats aren't saving our natural resources, who the hell is...?!?"

That anger has festered in me to this day. Max Baucus may still be the most corporate-entrenched, conniving Democrat in Washington, and Montana has suffered tremendously as a result. High unemployment. A broken public school system. A degraded natural environmental. The exponential evaporation of the once hallowed family farm. Montana's hurting, and the Democrats -- most certainly Baucus -- don't seem to give a damn.

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Joshua Frank is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of the brand new book Red State (more...)

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