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By Bill Gallagher

DETROIT -- The end of the era of someone named Bush or Clinton serving as president or vice president for the last 28 years is a welcome prospect. As a republican (the lower-case type), I deplore dynasties. Merit and achievement should trump surnames and the entitlements that come with them.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's sputtering campaign could mark the end of the Bush/Clinton/Bush progression through the White House. Bill Clinton -- the best of them -- is the only one whose name was not his major ticket to high office, the only one who struggled without the bestowed benefits and privileges of a famous name and inherited influence.

A nation of 300 million people surely can provide talented people to replace these ruling families. You certainly can't count Hillary out yet. She showed a lot of spunk in Saturday night's debate in New Hampshire, but her claim that she is an instrument for change rings hollow, especially since she still will not admit her vote to give President George W. Bush a blank check to wage war in Iraq was a monumental mistake.

Former senator John Edwards says his vote for the war was a mistake and he is now the first top-tier candidate to call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. To their great credit, Democrats Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel and Republican Ron Paul have been advocating immediate withdrawal. Democrat Bill Richardson wants a one-year withdrawal.

Paul's principled positions on the war and his spirited criticism of Bush's systematic assault on basic constitutional liberties will serve him well in New Hampshire. He speaks more common sense than all the rest of the GOP candidates combined.

The latest Rasmussen Reports poll shows 25 percent of Americans favor an immediate withdrawal from Iraq and another 38 percent support a one-year deadline to get the troops home. While those numbers are significant -- 63 percent of the electorate -- the debate time the candidates supporting those positions receive has been significantly less than for the "stay the course" chorus.

Chuck Todd, NBC's political director, crunched the numbers and reported in a New York Times piece that only 19 percent of the network time has gone to candidates whose views on the Iraq war are shared by nearly two-thirds of the American people. The shaping of the debate on Iraq, skewed far away from actual public opinion, helps manufacture consent for endless war and occupation.

The mainstream media trumpets the great "success" of the troop surge, pointing to the relative pacification of many areas in Baghdad. Lost in the glowing assessments is this stark fact: 2007 was the deadliest year for U.S. troops since the war began. More than 900 were killed, bringing the death toll on the American side for Bush's war to 3,900. More than one million Iraqis have died or fled their homes.

The purpose of the surge was to buy time to allow the Iraqis the chance for political reconciliation. That simply has not happened. Creating segregated sectarian zones in Baghdad, with American forces acting as buffers between Shiites and Sunnis, is a phony military solution that fails to address the still-festering hostilities the invasion and incompetent occupation unleashed.

Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and their corporate sponsors want to divvy up Iraq's oil reserves and maintain permanent military installations there to protect the booty. All the Republican candidates, except Paul, support these imperial designs and the neoconservative fantasy of using U.S. force to dominate the region.

Edwards recognizes Iraqi political and religious leaders must salvage what they can and the U.S. military can no longer serve as a national police force enabling the Iraqis to avoid accommodations and power-sharing.

"I honestly believe this in my soul, we are propping up their bad behavior," Edwards told The New York Times. "I mean really, how many American lives and how much American taxpayer money are we going to expend waiting for these (Iraqi) political leaders to do something?"

Fresh from his impressive win in Iowa, Barack Obama made his most forceful statement yet on what should be done in Iraq. Chicago radio talk-show host Roland Martin asked Obama the morning after the Iowa caucus, "If you are elected, what is the very first thing you focus on as commander in chief?"

Unlike Clinton -- who still argues an indefinite deployment of U.S. troops is required to sustain "remaining vital national security interests in Iraq," a position essentially indistinguishable from Bush's -- Obama wants to change course.

He says he would call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff and "will give them a new assignment, and that is to bring the troops home in a careful, responsible way, but to end the occupation of Iraq. I will call my secretary of state and initiate the diplomacy that's needed to make sure that exit is accompanied by negotiations between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds." Obama's victory speech in Iowa was inspiring, some of the best political oratory I've heard in a long time. He is drawing young voters and independents with enthusiasm and he certainly has upset the Beltway's parroting pundits who anointed Clinton the Democratic Party nominee months ago.

In the glow of victory, Obama told his supporters, "They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose. But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do."

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee also defied the cynics, topping former Massachusetts governor Willard "Mitt" Romney, who spent millions of his own cash but finished second behind Huckabee in the Iowa Republican caucus.

"We've learned that people are more important than the purse," Huckabee told his triumphant campaign workers. His speech sounded more like the populism of a William Jennings Bryan than the corporate-cozy Republican rhetoric we usually hear.

His campaign and others will benefit from a faltering U.S. economy. Unemployment is on the rise, housing values continue to decline, oil has topped $100 a barrel and we may already be in an election year recession.

Bush's reckless spend-and-borrow policies continue to contribute to the erosion of the U.S. dollar. In India, American tourists must now use rupees. Businesses and merchants around the world now treat U.S. Federal Reserve Notes like Typhoid Mary touched them.

We are witnessing "The Fall of the House of Bush," the title of Craig Unger's new book. It is a chilling account of how this undistinguished man with a famous name became the beneficiary of vile political and corporate interests that ushered him into the presidency.

Bush presided over the worst foreign policy decisions in U.S. history, and his fiscal policies will saddle generations with onerous debt. One percent of the American people are realizing an enormous gain in wealth as a result.

This year's presidential election will determine what the other 99 percent can do to begin cleaning up the national air from the putrid civic stench Bush will leave behind.

Bill Gallagher, a Peabody Award winner, is a former Niagara Falls city councilman who now covers Detroit for Fox2 News. His e-mail address is gallaghernewsman@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Jan. 8 2008