News and Features
He and the Greens are both a problem and a possible asset for the Democrats.
It's time for a liberal philosophy focusing on social justice and inequality.
New recounts show that the wrong man is in the Oval Office.
John Ashcroft's new leadership of the Department of Justice signals hard tomes for come in the United States.
Tommy Thompson's track record as governor of Wisconsin bodes poorly for his tenure as head of the Department of Health and Human Services.
Bush's national security advisers aren't up to the tasks before them.
Political cross-dressing by the Democrats ended on January 25 in Washington when their erstwhile conservative patron, Alan Greenspan, abruptly jilted them. Under Bill Clinton's tutelage, the party of working people held the hem of the Federal Reserve chairman's dark robes and pretended to be fiscal conservatives, just like him. We must not cut taxes, they insisted piously, we must instead use the burgeoning federal surpluses to pay off the national debt. Greenspan would solemnly bless these expressions of Hooverite restraint.
Then he blew them off. The Fed chairman announced his support for George W. Bush's broad agenda of major tax cuts and, for good measure, the dismantling of Social Security as we know it. He is, as ever, an astute opportunist. During the Clinton years, Greenspan did his own turn at cross-dressing, making chummy with a Democratic President who followed his directions. Now that a new President from the Party of Money is in power, Greenspan returns to the one true faith--rescuing business and the wealthy from the clutches of government. His pronouncements will inspire a lobbying contest among the upscale interests to see who can extract the most boodle from the Treasury.
Democrats are feeling hurt and disoriented. They fully deserve their embarrassment. Their embrace of conservative fiscal orthodoxy seemed clever at the time--a stalling tactic to hold off more GOP tax cuts for the wealthy--but like so many of Clinton's too-cute tactics, it was always a dead-end strategy for liberals. An activist party committed to addressing major public problems was, in effect, promising to do little or nothing of significance while massive surpluses accumulated for the next ten or fifteen years. The GOP could say, and did: If the government is collecting so much extra tax revenue, why not give some of it back to the people? Alternatively, Democrats might have proposed a major down payment on healthcare and other neglected social problems. Instead, we got Al Gore's "lockbox"--much ridiculed because it was always a ridiculous gimmick. Bookkeepers, it turns out, do not make very compelling presidential candidates.
Now, as the economy weakens so quickly that the Fed has moved twice to lower interest rates, Democrats are scrambling to be pro-tax cuts and belatedly trying to figure out what that means. This is the minority party's first great post-Clinton opportunity to restore its progressive reputation and show that it still has some fight. We have suggestions. First, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate should draw a bright line of principled resistance to yet another regressive tax package (never mind that some in their ranks are already defecting). For two decades, Democrats have collaborated in the Republicans' hog-feeding splurges, joining in the bidding wars to reward contributors and favored interests. This time, even if the prospects look doubtful, the party must oppose the giveaways--estate tax repeal, another capital gains tax cut, the phony tax incentive for corporate R&D, and other goodies Republicans are putting on the table. If income tax rates are to be reduced, don't acquiesce again in the Reaganite sleight of hand that cuts the top and bottom rates across the board as though the wealthiest are getting equal treatment with the least fortunate.
The positive principle, in addition to providing emergency stimulus for the economy, should be: Heal the wounded, the people whose incomes and family conditions have been squeezed for a generation, even during boom times. That means delivering the bulk of tax relief, whether the package is $800 billion or twice that much, to those on the bottom half or bottom two-thirds of the income ladder. Don't try to do this with lots of fanciful conditions that pretend to target particular social problems--just send them the money, as promptly as possible. There are many different ways to accomplish this: For example, suspend a point or two on the payroll tax paid by workers (but not employers) for a specified period of one or two years; or enact a bigger child deduction, progressively larger for families at or below the median household income level; or simply cut the lower-bracket marginal rates (while leaving the top rate alone), with an immediate cut in withholding. The important thing is not to let the principle get lost in tricky details. The principle is: The Democratic Party fights on behalf of the working middle class and poor (even if it disappoints some of its major contributors in the process). When and if the vast public hears this message from Democrats, most of them will probably not believe it. Democrats will not persuade until they learn to make the fight for real.
As for the Federal Reserve, our advice to Alan Greenspan is: Butt out. Greenspan, remember, is the wizard who supposedly "saved" Social Security back in 1983 when his blue-ribbon commission initiated the massive payroll tax increases on working people. Now he wants to save it again by destroying it. If the central bank wishes to preserve its protected status "independent" of politics, the chairman had better confine his Republican ideological preachments to dinners at the club.
The elections of 2000--resulting in the election of George W. Bush to the presidency, a historic 50-50 split in the Senate and a reduced Republican margin in the House--have supplied the basis for countless commentators to intone that Democrats must operate "from the center" or else face political annihilation. Progressives have heard this tune often enough over the past decade, invariably following every election. It seems that regardless of whether Democratic fortunes are up or down in any given year, the lesson drawn by inside-the-Beltway pundits is always the same: Operate from the center. It's easy to dismiss this stale conventional wisdom, but in the aftermath of this unusual election many progressives are legitimately wondering about the prospects of a progressive politics.
The American people do want us to govern from the center, in a sense. But it is not the center the pundits and politicians in Washington talk about. Citizens want us to deal with issues that are at the center of their lives. They yearn for a politics that speaks to and includes them--affordable childcare, a good education for their children, health and retirement security, good jobs that will support their families, respect for the environment and human rights, clean elections and clean campaigns.
One thing this election confirmed is that progressive politics can be winning politics. The public is clearly center-left on the most important issues: campaign finance reform, education, healthcare, living-wage jobs, trade and the environment. And there can be no doubt that Al Gore's championing of ordinary people over powerful interests gave a postconvention boost to his sagging candidacy. Progressive populism responds to the widespread awareness that large forces in our economy have too much power and ordinary people have too little.
Another critical lesson of this election is that progressive constituencies cannot be ignored. Union households, African-Americans and Hispanics were crucial to Democratic mobilization and turnout. It has become increasingly implausible to argue that Democrats must distance themselves from working people and the disadvantaged in order to win elections.
Yet the politics of our country, strangely, is center-right. The cruel irony is that George W. Bush won the presidency, in good part, by campaigning on Democratic issues--investing in children, education, prescription drug costs, healthcare and Social Security. His "compassionate conservatism" praises local volunteer efforts by ordinary citizens yet rejects the notion that government can make a positive difference when it comes to the most pressing issues of people's lives. This is a fine philosophy if you're a large corporation or wealthy, but not such a great deal if you're a working family.
Moreover, President Bush's agenda is bold and clear: $1.6 trillion in tax cuts flowing mainly to the wealthy, which will erode our country's revenue base and thus bar major investments in childcare, education and healthcare; a direct assault on environmental and workplace health and safety standards; massive new Pentagon spending on unworkable missile defense; the privatization of Social Security and Medicare; and an open challenge to Roe v. Wade and a woman's right to choose. There is more to the Bush agenda, of course, but this much ought to be enough to galvanize progressive forces around the country.
The problem is that all too often progressives have been better at denunciation than annunciation. We need both. People are as interested in what you're for as what you're against. With a unified GOP preparing to take the reins of a new administration, now is the time for progressives to put forward new ideas and new leaders. We need to take stock, compare notes, support one another and begin building today a winning progressive politics for tomorrow. Progressive politics is a winning politics so long as the central focus is on workaday majority issues.
Progressive politics is successful when it is not top-down and elitist and when it respects the capacity of ordinary citizens. That is why the impetus for change must come from outside Washington. There are three crucial ingredients to democratic renewal and progressive change in America: good public policy, grassroots organizing and electoral politics. Policy provides direction and an agenda for action; grassroots organizing builds a constituency to fight for change; and electoral politics is the main way, in the absence of sweeping social movements, that we contest for power and hold decision-makers accountable for progressive public policy. These ingredients are linked like the three legs of a stool.
As important as new ideas are, another think tank or policy institute not connected to local grassroots organizing will not suffice. Many of the discussions I have had so far in the progressive community have focused on creating a new organization as a counterweight to the Democratic Leadership Council. I am sympathetic to these efforts. Without them, the DLC moves us toward a Democratic Party that gives the country what the eminent political scientist Walter Dean Burnham calls "the politics of excluded alternatives"--what Jim Hightower calls "downsized politics." I am all for representing the democratic wing of the Democratic Party. But progressive politics must draw its energy and ideas from local citizen-activists. Too often we have failed to make that critical connection.
On February 28, the Campaign for America's Future will hold a conference of citizens' organizations and activists in Washington to draw a blueprint for a campaign to fight for economic and social progress. I am excited about participating in this gathering, which will be an important first step. There must also be regional gatherings held around the country to involve people in a meaningful way in an inclusive effort to create a progressive politics. As a Midwesterner, I am particularly sensitive to an exclusive focus on East and West Coast gatherings.
We must recognize that there is a wealth of effective labor, community and citizen organizing going on all across the country. The Service Employees International Union is showing the way by organizing a grassroots campaign for universal healthcare. The grassroots campaign for clean money/clean elections is our brightest hope for political reform. The nationwide grassroots campaign for a living wage has supplied new energy to the struggle against inequality. And the Seattle Coalition of trade unionists, environmentalists, human rights advocates, family farmers and people of faith is providing a democratic counterweight to corporate-led globalization.
Even so, I often ask myself, "Why doesn't the whole equal the sum of its parts? How does this organizing translate into more national clout for a progressive politics?" If we are to make this grassroots politics part of an effective national politics, grassroots leaders must be included. We must reach out to these leaders, including those disenchanted with party politics. A lot of these leaders' energy is focused on progressive issues, not party politics. Likewise, most citizens are not interested in party strategies; their politics is much more concrete and personal. If we don't speak to the concrete and personal issues that affect people's lives, we will miss out on some of the best opportunities for organizing people.
We need to build a progressive force that does a lot of organizing within the Democratic Party--especially candidate recruitment and elections. But this cannot be the only goal. This new force must not only introduce new and exciting perspectives into the political dialogue of our country; it must also recruit candidates; provide training, skills and resources for successful campaigns; build an infrastructure of field directors and campaign managers to support progressive candidates; have a savvy media presence; apply effective grassroots organizing to electoral politics; and otherwise build political leadership at the local, state and federal levels of government.
This is more a democratic than a Democratic challenge, though I hope there is a strong connection between the two. It is a challenge that is certainly bigger than any one leader or campaign, and it will require progressives to work together and to pull in the same direction. But building such a grassroots-based effort to advocate effectively for the progressive agenda, and to put more progressives in office at every level and across the country, is a goal worth fighting for.
On Day Two of the John Ashcroft hearings, Senator Pat Leahy--the Democrat temporarily chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee--asked George W. Bush's would-be Attorney General if he had blocked the nomination of businessman James Hormel to be ambassador to Luxembourg because Hormel is gay. Ashcroft replied, "I did not." He had quashed the nomination, Ashcroft contended, because of "the totality of the record." Actually, at the time of the Hormel controversy, Ashcroft's remarks indicated that Hormel's sexual orientation was crucial to his decision ("He's been a leader in promoting a lifestyle.... And the kind of leadership he's exhibited there is likely to be offensive.") Leahy could have challenged the ex-senator's honesty. He could have demanded that Ashcroft cite a reason beyond "lifestyle" for his opposition. Leahy had Ashcroft in his sights, but he didn't pull the trigger.
That moment was telling. Despite the right-wing rhetoric that Democrats are bent on a so-called politics of personal destruction, Senate Democrats did not slam Ashcroft as hard as they could have. For example, they didn't query him about his meeting with a leader of the racist Council of Conservative Citizens to discuss whether Ashcroft could help an imprisoned CCC member accused of conspiring to murder an FBI agent. At the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Democrats permitted designated Interior Secretary Gale Norton to slip-slide through her confirmation hearing. When she testified that "there is beginning to be more of a consensus" that global warming is under way but that there is "still disagreement as to the causes and the long-term future" of global warming, no Democrat pounced on her for mischaracterizing the current consensus among scientists that global warming is human-induced and presents a threat.
For Ashcroft and Norton, the Democrats mounted hearings designed to slap the nominees but not to defeat them. Ted Kennedy, Chuck Schumer, Richard Durbin and Joe Biden did question Ashcroft sharply. The testimony of Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White reinforced charges that Ashcroft--who had assailed White as "procriminal"--had waged a dishonest, intemperate and unfair campaign against this barrier-breaking African-American jurist. But overall, the Democrats weren't really gunning for Ashcroft or Norton--which can be seen as an indicator of how they intend to behave as the opposition.
It may be that their leaders decided that these were battles that could not be won, so why go all out? Senator Russell Feingold, a progressive, announced that as a matter of principle a President should be accorded his nominees. Several other Democrats--like the conservative Zell Miller--signaled that they would vote for Ashcroft, and Norton drew even less visible opposition. Clearly, some Democratic senators were wary of being tagged as underminers of the much-ballyhooed bipartisanship. The hard reality: With the Senate split 50-50, a single Democratic Senator can undo his or her party's position by threatening to bolt. Faced with these two way-out nominations, Senate Democrats--despite being pressed by key constituencies, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus--could not maintain a united opposition.
After the Ashcroft hearings, leaders of the anti-Ashcroft campaign criticized the Democrats, in private, for their lack of fierce effectiveness. "The Democrats have to learn how to fight to win," one of the coalition leaders complained. "Trying to achieve fairness is great. But you also have to be willing to play hardball. You didn't have good cross-examination during the hearings." The Democrats on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee disappointed the enviros opposing Norton. "It was very frustrating," said an environmental lobbyist. "Bush sends up this extremist, and the Democrats did not push back--or even send a loud message that we don't want her screwing around with laws that protect the environment." But several forgive-and-forget Senate Democrats are not interested in a fight with Bush, and that will hobble any attempt on the part of Congressional Democrats to mount a coherent anti-Bush front. And where's the Democrats' alternative-to-Bush agenda? Congressional Democrats include those eager to cooperate with the President and also those who want to trounce the Filcher of Florida. Bush the "uniter" is so far doing well in dividing the Democrats.
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