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Elections 2000--A Bad Dream? | The Nation

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Elections 2000--A Bad Dream?

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We asked some of our regular contributors to respond to "The Other Y2K Crisis," an editorial by Stephen Gillers in the last issue. Their comments follow.
   --The Editors

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JOEL ROGERS

Stephen Gillers's Y2K nightmare is a Republican "trifecta" capture of national government next year--the legislature by force of incumbency, the presidency from Gore fatigue (a condition most have suffered since Gore's political toddlerdom) and the judiciary by dint of Supreme Court retirements during the ensuing Republican watch. He thinks it urgent that Nation readers figure out how to prevent this. I wonder about the terms of the discussion.

Let's start with prescription. Despite an unspecified option of doing "something else entirely," Gillers's basic thrust is that the danger of three-branch Republican dominance--the product of its probability and the horror of its achievement--is great enough that we should all focus single-mindedly on these elections.

I'm less persuaded of the danger. Although the Senate seems a hopeless candidate for Democratic takeover, I think the House can still be gained. I also doubt that a Republican President, especially one as studiously nonideological as Bush, will succeed in packing the Court. (Recall that Justices John Paul Stevens and David Souter, whom Gillers identifies as the Court's liberal wing, were both appointed by Republicans, as was Earl Warren, whose Court's achievements Rehnquist & Co. have labored so long, and largely unsuccessfully, to overturn.)

But let's say most Nation readers are frantic with concern. What can they do in the next several months? I'd say first recognize that your population is small, and the electorate is large. If you really want to make a difference, get organized and target. Don't sweat the presidential or Senate stuff, as neither your vote nor money will make much difference. Concentrate on the House races. Mass your money into fifteen competitive contests, coordinated with the AFL-CIO and others doing similar targeting, perhaps by forming a Nation Reader PAC, to which we might contribute. Figure 100,000 subscribers, many of more than adequate means. Figure 30 percent taking a pledge at $500 apiece. A nice war chest of $15 million, which, spent over as many races, could work some constructive damage and help take back the House.

But more generally, and notwithstanding its possible legitimacy here, I hope we won't forever let Gillers's starting point be the default starting point in progressive discussion of electoral politics--a default that focuses on the next election, fixates on federal government and is silent on the organizational requirements of a progressive electoral power. The fact is, the terms of the next election are already largely decided, and at present include next to nothing of use to working-class Americans. The fact is that the policies that most affect that class are increasingly set in the statehouse and at the county and municipal level. And the fact is that corporate-rightist abuse of it didn't just happen--it reflects years of work building an infrastructure of recruitment, training and program supports to those candidates willing to administer that abuse, beginning at those state and local levels. We progressives don't have anything like that. We need to think longer term and build it, and its message, or forever lose and be locked in desperate conversations like this.

Joel Rogers, a Nation contributing editor, teaches at the University of Wisconsin. His latest book (with Richard Freeman) is What Workers Want (Cornell).


BARBARA EHRENREICH

Stephen Gillers raises the question of whether the left should throw its support to Bradley or Gore. But just what would that support consist of--endorsements by The Nation and In These Times? A few dozen volunteers? (And given the placid, centrist politics of these two candidates, I wouldn't count on any more than that.) My point, though, is not that these are unworthy men, but that any resources the left might have to offer are dwarfed by the sums of money Wall Street & Co. is already staking on them. The more that money rules the electoral process, the more irrelevant our support or nonsupport becomes.

When the process no longer requires or allows our participation--or that of anyone else in the sub-millionaire category--then the only thing to do is to attack the process itself. Our Op-Eds and volunteer energy should be dedicated to a relentless populist assault on the dominion of big money over the system-formerly-known-as-democracy. How about a campaign, for example, to get people to pledge to withhold their vote from anyone who raises more than a certain sum? Slogan: "My vote is priceless," or some snappy version thereof. Presidential and Congressional candidates who have already raised more than our designated limits would be encouraged to donate the excess to the movement for campaign finance reform.

Then too, we might try to run our own low-budget candidate in the Democratic primaries. Unlike 1992, when there was a small herd of Democratic presidential wannabes, a left alternative to Bradley/Gore would surely win some media attention, inclusion in debates, etc., if only as a welcome antidote to the gathering ennui. She or he would then be in a fine position to nudge Bradley/Gore into sounding more like Democrats. My choice, now that Wellstone and Jackson are on the bleachers, is the tireless and witty Jim Hightower, but he has so far resisted my importunings. Maybe you'll be more persuasive--or decide to run yourself.

Barbara Ehrenreich's most recent book is Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War (Metropolitan Books).


FRANCES FOX PIVEN and
RICHARD A. CLOWARD

Every four years the call goes out for the left to pull together and support the Democratic presidential ticket, because too much is at stake: appointments to the federal judiciary, pending legislation on social programs, the prospect of total Republican rule. We always listen closely. We have no trouble choosing the lesser evil.

But was Bill Clinton the lesser evil? His triangulating healthcare proposal killed the possibility of comprehensive reform for who knows how long. He never made the tough fight for decent appointments to the federal judiciary. And his pitch to "end welfare as we know it" incited the Republicans to write a draconian welfare bill. Clinton listened to Dick Morris and signed it; George Bush might not have. Had Bush been re-elected in 1992, the Republican right probably wouldn't have taken over the House in 1994. Clinton even helped elect the House that impeached him, by refusing in 1996 to bend his own campaign plans or share his campaign money with Democrats running in closely contested House races.

We think progressives should do what Stephen Gillers calls "something else entirely." Except for the unions (and even that's disputable), the left can't play the insider game in Democratic politics. What we maybe can do is help build the independent politics that puts pressure on the Democrats from the bottom and from the outside. And we can do this by throwing in with social movements and third-party efforts that try to do just that.

In 1992 or even 1996 this sort of advice might have seemed a pipe dream. But now, movement politics is gaining momentum. It's not just the fighting rhetoric or the new AFL-CIO leadership but the string of gutsy organizing wins and the new readiness of the unions to link with other groups, as in the living wage campaigns. The universities are also coming alive, with union organizing campaigns and the student anti-sweatshop movement. Community campaigns, like New York City's against police violence, are taking off too. Also in New York, the Working Families Party, which includes unions and community groups, pulled enough votes in 1998 to win a line on the ballot. Elsewhere, New Party and Green candidates are winning local elections, another way to put pressure on the Democrats from the bottom, and from the left.

So, it's OK to pull the lever for Gore--in the end, we may too. And some of us will work for much-less-evil candidates in House or Senate races. But then we should also do something else entirely, throw in with the movements that are the only alternative to lesser-evil politics.

Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward are the authors of Regulating the Poor (Pantheon), The Breaking of the American Social Compact (The New Press) and Poor People's Movements (Pantheon).


NORMAN BIRNBAUM

The election of 2000 may be open in several ways, not all of them sublime. A market crash and rising unemployment, trapping an indebted nation, may generate disillusioned rage, a very nasty public temper and tone. A continuation of the stress of the present boom, with tens of millions reproaching themselves for not being happier and richer, will have results not appreciably better. A confrontation with China, so devoutly willed and worked for by the unemployed cold warriors and the Republican right, may occur. George W. Bush and Al Gore may both stumble, although it does not follow that Orrin Hatch or John McCain or Bill Bradley will profit. A third party, proffering candidates and inanities, might upset all expectations.

In the circumstances, we had best concentrate on getting ourselves a Democratic Congress and on keeping the Republicans from increasing their majority in the Senate to sixty, with the ensuing power to do monstrous damage. Richard Gephardt isn't the prophet Isaiah, but having Congressmen John Conyers and Charles Rangel in the chairs of the Justice and Ways and Means committees, respectively, is worth some effort. No matter how miserable the next President, or terrible the Republican Senate program, a Democratic House would be a rampart against the destruction of the American state--and a rampart from which, possibly, we could later sally forth to do battle.

As for the presidency, perhaps Gore can be defeated in the primaries and consigned to the chamber of hell reserved for defeated Vice Presidents. The Washington hustlers in charge of his campaign, Gore's own connections to the most egregious of the new wealthy on Wall Street, his singular mixture of cravenness and conventionality in foreign affairs, are repellent. Clinton failed to use the power and pedagogic potential of the White House for decent social objectives. What evidence is there (family tradition and his shouting loudly at AFL-CIO meetings apart) that Gore would do so? Certainly, his role in the Democratic Leadership Council allows us to conclude that "practical idealism" is a euphemism for the continuing and purposeful degradation of the New Deal tradition, its reduction to clientelism and ineffectual incrementalism.

Bradley is much more appealing as a person, and his insistence that the nation confront problems of poverty and race makes him seem, by contrast with Bush and Gore, a noble figure from a distant American past. He has promised to be more specific by the fall. Bradley, too, has Wall Street connections. Perhaps we should make him an offer. If he is prepared to consider naming John Sweeney as Treasury Secretary, we are open to backing him.

Norman Birnbaum, a member of the Nation editorial board and a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, faces his nineteenth presidential election. He confesses to little recall of the ones of 1928 and '32, however.


RON WALTERS

I accept Stephen Gillers's argument that if the 2000 election were held right now Republicans would win the White House and Senate, but Democrats would win the House. He errs, however, when he imputes these potential Republican victories totally to Monicagate, since it was Ross Perot who threw a roadblock into the path of a second Republican victory for George Bush. The point is that the political system--Supreme Court, executive branch and Congress--has been trending Republican and conservative for some time, and a Democratic President was an aberration only because Clinton adjusted the Democratic Party to the trend.

One problem is that white women helped Clinton to victory in 1992 and 1996, but they defected in 1998. So, assuming that Al Gore will win the Democratic nomination and the formidable lead that George W. Bush has persists until spring 2000, I think there is only one way to shore up Gore's weakness--put Hillary on the ticket. Democratic strategists have missed the boat by urging their most popular party asset to run for a Senate seat in New York. If the contrary point is that she would continue the Clinton/Gore (except as Gore/Clinton) White House that so many white voters want to end, since Gore himself is vulnerable on this point, he may need such a bold stroke.

Voters of color present another problem. Despite the fact that Gore and Bush are locked in a Spanish-speaking contest, blacks made the big difference in 1998 elections. However, a recent Washington Post poll showed a whopping 21 percent level of black support for Bush. If this trend continues, Gore most assuredly will lose. Moreover, some leading black politicians are dispirited about the rumor that the Democratic Leadership Council wrote Gore's announcement speech, and, as a result, they have not endorsed him yet. In fact, some members of the Congressional Black Caucus have let it be known that the Third Way is not their way, and although he will need Hispanics, he simply has not spoken enough soul. This means that since Gore is stepping out of Clinton's shadow, he must also declare himself anew on issues of civil rights, inner-city economic investment, public education, affirmative action, poverty, enhanced access to technology and information and other issues of interest to black voters, rather than take their support for granted.

Progressives therefore have no choice but to adopt three strategies: First, vigorously contest the right wing of the Democratic Party's influence on Gore in intraparty struggles. (I focus on Gore, since I do not yet see a radical difference between Gore and Bill Bradley.) Second, push for Hillary Clinton to occupy the second spot on the ticket, to enhance its female and progressive cast. Third, place the greatest emphasis on House races, because the empowerment of progressive legislators will give them a platform to propose progressive legislation and at least act as a blocking mechanism to Republican attempts to enact a 2000-style version of the Contract on America.

Ron Walters, who was assistant director of Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign, is professor of government and politics and senior scholar at the James MacGregor Burns Academy, University of Maryland. His latest book (with Robert Smith), is African American Leadership (SUNY).


MICAH L. SIFRY

Aside from personality, I don't see much difference between Gush and Bore, the trim sons of patrician fathers. One's a compassionate conservative, the other's a practical idealist. Either way they'll cut corners and smudge differences to do whatever it takes to win. Neither has any real idea what it is to be an ordinary working person in America today. They're both free-trade zealots and welfare shredders. One raises big money from lawyer-lobbyists at Goldman, Sachs and Ernst & Young; the other rakes it in from lawyer-lobbyists at Vinson & Elkins and Jenkens & Gilchrist. Gore's in debt to Viacom; Bush is in debt to Capstar Broadcasting. Not much difference, so far as I can tell.

Sure, Gore is pro-choice now (he wasn't when he was a Congressman) and Bush is anti-choice (the way his mother was?) and Professor Gillers can scare us with a potential shift of the Supreme Court. But just as Republican control of Congress hasn't led to a rollback of Roe v. Wade, I'll bet that Republicans don't want to commit electoral suicide by packing the Court with anti-choicers should they retake the White House. Meanwhile, I wish Gillers would tell us about the Court's pro-business and anti­civil rights majority, and what the chances are that a New Democrat like Gore will do anything different on those fronts from the Administration he served for the last seven years.

What should progressives do about Gore? Stand up and shout about his shameful kowtowing to the pharmaceutical companies, who don't want Third World countries getting their hands on cheap, generic AIDS drugs, for one thing. Protest the lack of action he has taken to raise fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks, the biggest step we could take to reduce global warming. Ask why a sitting Vice President believes he has to break the Democratic Party's fundraising record instead of setting a different kind of example of leadership.

As for Congress, Democratic control won't mean much without comprehensive campaign finance reform--i.e., full public financing for candidates willing to raise no private money and abide by spending limits. There's a reason we have an anti-choice corporate party and a pro-choice corporate party. Getting rid of soft money is only a first step. In 2000, voters in Missouri, Oregon and New Mexico will have a chance to join fellow citizens in Maine, Vermont, Arizona and Massachusetts in adopting Clean Money Campaign Reform. Supporting that movement as it gains steam and heads toward Washington will mean a lot more in the long run than saving Al Gore's career.

There are other fights for progressives to join. Like making sure everyone is counted in the 2000 census. Like insuring that labor has the right to organize. Like fighting for an alternative to managed healthcare. Like building independent power bases focused on local and state politics, so we aren't always boxed in with candidates like Gore. Otherwise there isn't much we can do when the elephants dance except avoid getting stomped on. And I do mean elephants.

Micah L. Sifry, a senior analyst with Public Campaign, is writing a book about the prospects of America's third parties.


MANNING MARABLE

More than thirty years ago Bayard Rustin, architect of the 1963 March on Washington, suggested that the time had come for the civil rights movement to make the transition from protest to politics. The goal was no longer to pack the jails but to mobilize voters for the election of black officials. And after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the number of black elected officials soared from barely 100 to 10,000, and the number of African-Americans in Congress has increased eightfold. But despite these and other gains, millions of black, brown and poor Americans continue to feel disempowered by the two-party system and by the conservative policies pushed by the Contract With America Republicans as well as the New Democrats, represented by Bill Clinton. It seems it's time to move back to protest.

So the question of whether George W. Bush or Al Gore will succeed Clinton is really the wrong question. Given Clinton/Gore's disappointing record on issues like welfare "reform" and healthcare, it will be extremely difficult to convince black voters to turn out in November 2000. Much as in David Dinkins's narrow defeat by Rudolph Giuliani in the 1993 New York mayoral race, it may be impossible to scare Democratic core voters into voting for a politician who does little to inspire their hopes for a better life.

I am not arguing that there are no differences between Gore and Bush or that electoral politics is unimportant. (I'm old enough to remember when the vast majority of African-Americans couldn't vote, and I am not nostalgic for Jim Crow segregation.) But the overemphasis on electoralism at the expense of other forms of engagement creates a no-win situation for progressives. What's urgently needed is coalitional work around issues that cut across race, class, gender and region. And much of the necessary political work will take place in sites of struggle in communities and workplaces rather than at voting booths.

The democratic left--the broad network of liberal and progressive organizations and constituencies, from the NAACP to NOW, from lesbian and gay rights activists to the left wing of organized labor--has largely become divorced from the activist traditions of social protest. We need to think about the 2000 presidential campaign as not about whether we can elect Bradley or Gore but about how we can defeat Bush and perhaps shift the balance of power in the House. In other words, we need to mobilize our constituencies to fight for issues that matter to them--police brutality, living-wage jobs, public transportation, etc.--that push centrist Democrats like Gore further left. We had an example of this in New York City, with the demonstrations over the shooting of Amadou Diallo. The April 15 march across the Brooklyn Bridge attracted about 20,000 protesters, at least a third of them white and Latino, and there was a heavy representation of union members--city employees, hospital workers, construction workers and teachers. This mobilization, which got some modest concessions from the Giuliani regime, created a potential basis for work and dialogue about issues in the 2000 campaign.

Frederick Douglass said that without struggle there is no progress. We can face the dilemma of Y2K far better if we think about electoral politics as only one dimension of the struggle for fairness and a more equitable society.

Manning Marable, professor of history and political science and director of the Institute of Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, is a national co-chairman of the Committees of Correspondence, a democratic socialist organization.

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