Unfinished Business | The Nation


Unfinished Business

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Another great failure of omission that will haunt the next President, no matter who wins, is Clinton's retreat from the central challenge of global warming. After the Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997, Clinton signaled to the opposition--major industrial sectors and their conservative allies in Congress--that he was not prepared to fight them on this ground either. Instead, he promised he would propose nothing on the legislative front until after Congress ratifies the Kyoto agreement--a cute stratagem that let both sides accept a temporary truce. When opponents are strong and determined, Clinton goes limp. But for status quo interests in Washington, any delay is always a victory.

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William Greider
William Greider
William Greider, a prominent political journalist and author, has been a reporter for more than 35 years for newspapers...

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The politics of global warming were always bound to be very difficult, and whatever Clinton proposed might well have been rejected. But that's nearly always the case with important environmental battles, as the Natural Resources Defense Council's David Hawkins, a thirty-year veteran of these struggles, reminded me. It took nearly ten years to enact the 1990 Clean Air Act, Hawkins recalled, but it would have taken even longer if the advocates hadn't started pushing the fight during the early Reagan years. By forcing senators to vote up or down on acid rain, even when the legislation seemed doomed, the environmental reformers also compelled senators to feel the heat back home at the next election. Forcing accountability and educating voters is how they eventually built a majority for passage.

The first rule of politics, Hawkins explained, is that you can never win a fight until you start a fight. Reagan and like-minded conservatives evidently understood this rule too. The scale of Clinton's failure will eventually be determined by whether Democrats rediscover, once this President has retired, that fighting for big ideas that seem hopeless can be the smartest politics in the long run.

* * *

The big money owns Election 2000 so far. That could change in the coming months, but right now it's reflected in the emptiness of what candidates from both parties have to say about the American condition. The most pernicious influence of big money is not the repeated scandals in which contributors buy politicians, quid pro quo. The far graver damage from relying on major corporations or wealth holders to finance candidates in both parties is how this automatically keeps provocative, new ideas off the table--effectively vetoed even before the public can hear about them.

Money doesn't just talk in politics, it also silences. Another old friend, a skilled and successful campaign consultant, explained it for me some years ago. "It costs so much to get elected and re-elected," he said, "that the system inhibits anyone from taking positions that will be too controversial and will make it more difficult to raise money. Do people in a campaign say that directly? No. What they say is: 'What's the responsible position on this issue?' That's a code word for fundraising. Even when it's not consciously used as a code word, that's the effect." My old friend is working this year for Gore.

Clinton didn't invent the Democrats' dependency on the moneyed interests alien to his party's core constituencies (back in the eighties, the architect for House Democrats was Representative Tony Coelho of California, who this year is Gore's campaign chairman). Clinton did, however, elaborate money politics in shrewd new ways. Early in his presidency, when Democrats still controlled Congress and could have enacted genuine campaign-finance reform, Clinton took a pass. Then, in 1995-96, he blew out the gaskets: The White House raised a fortune in uncontrolled soft-money gifts, then used it to manipulate the public mood with a torrent of artful attack ads. Though the legality was arguable, nobody went to jail. This year, Republicans are cheerfully emulating Clinton's strategy, piling up millions for payback time. Democrats lamely complain that the GOP is trying to buy the election.

While there are many other contributing factors, money politics helps to explain why presidential elections are no longer very convincing. Choosing a new leader for the nation was once the most absorbing drama of American democracy, but the process is now caught in a spiral of declining legitimacy. Neither major party seems able to speak plainly, convincingly, on fundamental matters that distress Americans, in part because both parties depend upon the same galaxy of contributors to finance their candidates. Real differences endure, of course, but money makes it increasingly risky for any candidate who thinks anew and outside the accepted boundaries (unless the candidate happens to be rich as Croesus and finances himself).

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