Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Susan Davis, Mike Copass Debate in Hillcrest

Congressmember, Primary Challenger Disagree on War Funding


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Though incumbent 53rd District Congressmember Susan Davis and her Democratic primary challenger, research scientist and legal consultant Mike Copass, agreed on most of the issues raised at their May 25 debate at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest, not surprisingly it was the issue that led Copass to take on Davis in the first place — her continued support for funding the U.S. war and occupation of Iraq — that provoked their greatest differences. Davis continued to take pride in her initial vote in October 2002 against the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq — but Copass said that whatever anti-war credibility she had earned by that vote, she has squandered by voting for every supplemental appropriation the Bush administration has asked for to fund the war.

“I’m a strong supporter of equality for all, pro-choice, pro-education, pro-living wage,” Copass said in his closing statement. “I’ll fight for universal health care, accurate elections [and] to create new green-collar jobs. … But before we take those steps towards the promised land, we have to deal with the big issues at hand: the loss of open government, the degradation of the rule of law, [and] the impasse over an immoral military occupation. You know, it’s not only devastating to be occupied, it’s devastating to the occupiers, to us. … We’ve had a Congress that’s proven itself too willing to stay on the sidelines, to smile politely and run out the clock [on the Bush administration]. I am not satisfied with that response. I reject that status quo, that failure to act, that failure to stand up to an administration that has damaged our rights and has nearly destroyed America’s credibility as a force for leadership and peace. …

“We need to end this illegal, immoral occupation of Iraq,” Copass continued. “It is bankrupting us economically, it is bankrupting us spiritually, and we have to move with determination now. So let me state for the record that slaughter of civilians, murder, theft and torture are wrong and must be opposed. The invasion of Iraq was illegal, immoral and wrong. The continuing and ongoing occupation of Iraq is illegal, immoral and wrong. And when our incumbent Democrats vote with Republicans to extend further war funding, that is also wrong.” Copass’ closing statement got wild applause from about 2/3 of the over 200 people in the room and a demand from moderator Betty Weinberger of the San Diego chapter of the League of Women Voters, which co-sponsored the event with the San Diego chapter of Common Cause, that the crowd give an equal level of applause to Davis.

“One of the toughest votes I had was on the war in Iraq,” Davis said when her turn came. “I voted no, but I also have to tell you with my heart and my head, I have supported the funding, because I believe that it does support our troops” — a statement that earned her boos from the anti-war partisans in the crowd, who were rebuked by Weinberger for expressing themselves out of turn. Davis continued, “When people sometimes ask what vote are you most proud of, the ‘no’ vote on Iraq I was proud of, but I also believe — and I know how you feel, and I appreciate that — that if I had voted the other way on the troops, because they’re still in harm’s way [and] I can’t pull them out; I’d like to do that, I can’t pull them out, I would not have been as proud of that vote. And many of my colleagues have told me the same thing.”

Next to funding the Iraq war, the biggest difference between the candidates came over whether to end mandatory Selective Service registration of all U.S. males at age 18. Though the U.S. hasn’t actually had a draft since U.S. military involvement in Viet Nam ended in 1973, the registration requirement remains in place so a draft could be reinstituted at any time the President and Congress decided it was needed. Suprisingly, it was Copass — generally considered the more anti-war of the two candidates — who was more skeptical about ending Selective Service registration.

“When I was 18 and I registered to vote,” Copass said, “and I signed up with Selective Service, I thought it meant that if there should be a military conflict and I should be called up to defend my country, I’m ready to do that. I think it’s an obligation we take, and having asked that obligation of our citizens, I think it’s fundamental that our government never let that trust be betrayed and never let our military be used for aggressive or imperial purposes. Congress has the right of oversight on that, and they have failed in this. … We need to share in that sacrifice. We all need to understand that this is a cause we can get behind, that the entire country can embrace, as we did in World War II. Without a draft, with what they call an ‘all-volunteer service,’ I think we’ve seen the system is ripe for abuse.”

“I support an all-volunteer army,” said Davis, “and what I have fought against is what we have experienced, which is a back-door draft in the country. Stop-loss” — the military’s unilateral power in wartime to extend enlistments past the terms the recruits signed up for and send servicemembers on tour after tour of duty — “has hurt far, far too many of our men and women who serve, and their families. It’s far too difficult for them to predict. They’ve served. They have done everything we’ve asked of them, and so I believe that one of the ways you address that is to have at least a large enough n-strength [the total number of Americans in the service] so that we don’t have to go through stop-loss. We do have people who want to serve in the military in this country. We shouldn’t be prevailing on those who have already served.”

On a related issue, whether military recruiters should be allowed on high school campuses, Copass said flat-out, “We need to de-militarize our schools. I respect the right of the military to recruit, but not in high schools and not through a hidden clause in the No Child Left Behind bill” — which provides that any school that doesn’t provide the military contact information on all its students, including their home addresses and home and cell phone numbers, won’t receive federal funding for anything.

Davis made it clear she sees no difference between allowing recruiters for private employers on high school campuses and admitting military recruiters. “They should have strict rules for all recruiters,” she said, “but as long as the rules are followed, they should be allowed.. I have worked with recruiters on this issue and I get very few constituent complaints about this.”

Aside from those major disagreements, much of the debate consisted of Davis and Copass agreeing on most of the questions submitted from the audience, though Copass often accused Davis of not being aggressive enough in pursuing issues on which she claimed to agree with him. Both agreed that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy forbidding Queers from serving openly in the U.S. military should be repealed, but Copass criticized Davis for taking as long as she had to co-sponsor the repeal bill.

Both Davis and Copass said they were pro-choice on women’s reproductive rights, though Copass said he might be a more effective advocate for the pro-choice position precisely because as a man he’d be seen as less directly interested in the issue. Both agreed that the U.S. should be doing more to help veterans of the Iraq war who need medical care, particularly those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other combat-related mental illnesses — but Copass argued that Davis’ votes to continue funding the war are allowing it to last longer and thereby creating more such wounded veterans.

The candidates crossed swords on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the follow-up agreements the Bush administration is pushing, including the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Copass said he was opposed to these agreements and called the effect of NAFTA “disastrous.” He criticized Davis for voting for a bilateral trade agreement with Peru along NAFTA-esque lines, and Davis defended her vote by saying she’d been able to work with labor leaders in both the U.S. and Peru “to have labor protections built into the bill.”

Asked whether they would support single-payer health care — which would replace the private health insurance industry with a government agency that would provide universal coverage — Davis gave the usual dodge of politicians anxious to express concern about expanding health coverage but not willing to take on the rich, powerful health insurance industry. “I’m a strong supporter of universal coverage,” she said. “I’m excited about the prospect of working with the next President on this issue. We have a lot of plans out there.”

“The right to health care is a fundamental right,” Copass said. “It’s past time the U.S. joins the other advanced nations of the world in providing health care to all its citizens. My father, a physician, used to be against national health care. Now he’s for it.” Though Copass used the usual rhetoric of single-payer advocates, and endorsed a bill by Congressmembers John Conyers and Dennis Kucinich that is a single-payer plan, he disappointed some of his supporters in the audience by never letting the words “single-payer” cross his lips.

As on many other issues during the debate, when a question about the border fence came up, Davis boasted of her ability to bring stakeholders together and discuss the issue — including, in this case, the Border Patrol and Army Corps of Engineers along with environmentalist organizations — while Copass bluntly said, “I’m dead set against the wall.” As an alternative, Copass called on the U.S. to enact “a Marshall Plan for Latin America” to build up the economies of Mexico and other Central and South American countries so their citizens won’t have to leave to find good-paying jobs.

On whether the U.S. should invade Iran, Davis insisted that only Congress has the power to authorize U.S. military operations against Iran or any other country — contrary to the position of former Bush administration lawyers like UC Berkeley law professor John Yoo, who has said that once a war begins the President has unlimited authority to wage it as he or she sees fit, including attacking another country that wasn’t part of the original conflict. Copass criticized Davis for voting against an amendment sponsored by Congressmember Peter DeFazio that would have put the U.S. Congress on record as demanding the right to approve a strike against Iran before the administration makes one.