Bush's Phony 'Bipartisanship'
Battles over economic issues, particularly on trade and globalization, could actually be easier for progressives to wage against a GOP administration than against the Clinton White House. During the brief postelection session of the 106th Congress, Democratic Representative Sherrod Brown said he was already witnessing an upside to opposition. "I was talking to this Democratic Congressman who had voted for most of the corporate free-trade agreements--NAFTA, GATT, PNTR for China--and he said, 'Look, I just couldn't vote against these deals when Clinton was pushing them. But now that Bush is in, there's no way I'm voting for them anymore,''' said Brown. "It was hard for a lot of Congressional Democrats to follow their natural populist inclinations when there was a corporatist Democrat in the White House. Now, a lot of the Democrats who were listening to Clinton can start to listen to their constituencies and to their consciences.''
Wellstone agrees with the notion that Democrats unbound may be better positioned to fight on a host of economic issues. "The President and his Administration defined a lot of what the Democratic Party stood for,'' says Wellstone. "In the past, when we had a Democratic President who did not define the party message to involve these global economic issues, and to involve a progressive approach to economics in general, it was very hard to break through. That will not be the case now.''
Jon Corzine, a millionaire whose free-spending run for a New Jersey Senate seat turned off many campaign-finance-reform enthusiasts, impressed Wellstone by going out of his way to ask how progressives would be working together in the new Senate. Wellstone says he expects to see Corzine and as many as ten other Democratic senators at informal meetings of progressives who will seek to advance causes like union-backed healthcare reform that would permit states to experiment with various approaches to guaranteeing coverage for all.
In the House there is broad acknowledgment that the fifty-three-member Progressive Caucus must be radically remade to be a force in the new Congress and beyond. To that end, Sanders, along with Democrats Maurice Hinchey, Tammy Baldwin, Barbara Lee, Cynthia McKinney, John Conyers and other key members, met after the election to map a strategy that is expected to include development of a political action committee designed to elect left-leaning candidates. Working with the Institute for Policy Studies, the caucus plans a January "Festival of Ideas" on Capitol Hill to address policy and strategy on the eve of the inauguration.
Key to the caucus's prospects of playing a more dynamic role will be Representative Dennis Kucinich, who in December was elected caucus chairman. "I think progressives can offer the Democratic leadership something that is needed: a real vision for where this country should be headed, not some compromise that leaves everyone disappointed," says Kucinich. "With our energy, we can move beyond this whole idea of simply beating up on Bush--which I don't believe will be effective--and put forward an energetic program that asks why this Congress can't enact a real HMO Bill of Rights for all Americans, why this Congress can't expand protections for the environment, why this Congress can't enact labeling for genetically modified foods."
Representative Jan Schakowsky argues for a strategy of "planting the flag where Republicans can't go.'' This includes a passionate defense of reproductive rights, advocacy for pay equity and civil rights measures, and a new focus on the importance of defending the separation of church and state. Frustrated by the success the GOP had in blurring the margins of debate over such issues as Medicare prescription-drug benefits and an HMO Bill of Rights, she says, "As progressives, we need to be truth-tellers--the people who really clarify issues. In this last campaign, we saw issues that Democrats should have owned get lost to the Republicans.'' (One example: By offering their own watered-down proposal for prescription-drug reform and then savaging the Democratic plan as "big government,'' Republicans turned a 70-30 polling deficit on the issue into a 50-50 split that did them little harm on Election Day.) By staking out a clear agenda, says Schakowsky, progressives can place the Democratic Party on firmer ground in Congress and at the grassroots. "As a lifelong organizer, I see real opportunities here for progressives," she says. "There is a passion out there. People are furious with the way the 2000 election ended. They are looking for a political home, and progressives are best positioned to offer them that home.''
Schakowsky and a number of other newer members see aggressive organizing outside Congress as vital to battling Bush's agenda and making the Democratic Party an attractive alternative in 2002 and 2004. "If conservative Democrats begin working with Bush, as I believe they will, the Republican Party, Bush and his people will claim they have built a bipartisan coalition that represents the great American majority," says Jackson, who wants to see far stronger linkages between the Progressive Caucus and African-American, labor, student and women's groups. "The only way we can counter that is by reaching out to the tens of millions of Americans who think of themselves as progressives--be they Democrats or Greens--and to the tens of millions of Americans who don't even vote at this point. They have to be our answer to the lie of bipartisanship; they have to say, 'George W. Bush and some conservative Democrats may have agreed on this tax cut for billionaires or that new restriction on a woman's right to choose, but we the people did not agree.'"
Jackson says lack of organization is a longstanding weakness of liberals. "Now, in the face of the almost certain abandonment of our struggle by conservative Democrats, we will either organize ourselves in the Congress and at the grassroots or we will fail," he says. "The right wing is extremely well organized. We will either equal that organization or we will be defeated in this session of Congress, in 2002 and beyond."