In the clash over tax cuts and social programs, much of what progressives need to do is defensive. But it would be a mistake not to float new ideas, too.
In recent months, as a newly elected senator, I have had to decide whether to join the Democratic Leadership Council. I have chosen not to because while I shared its founding purpose, which was to frame a successful response to President Reagan's efforts to portray Democrats as the party of "tax and spend," social engineering and failed personal responsibility, I believe that purpose has been largely accomplished.
Today, I believe that it is vital for Democrats to stand up for a sharply defined progressive agenda--one that is committed to fighting for practical and progressive policies for working families and America's middle class--even when that means challenging powerful interests and the status quo. I am absolutely convinced that, standing on the foundation of fiscal stability that Democrats have built and to which the DLC contributed, we now have to fight for our convictions. If we begin to negotiate from the middle, the end result inevitably takes us to the right of where I believe our nation should be.
Nothing is more relevant to this point than today's debate over the Bush tax cut proposal. Democrats must remain firmly opposed to this budget-busting plan, which provides disproportionate benefits for the richest 1 percent of our population. It is relevant and essential to our argument that this tax cut is not only unfocused and poorly timed but also unfair. In fact, if we yield on fairness before the debate begins, we forfeit our fundamental ground. That is one reason I have proposed a tax cut that gives an immediate break to everyone equally and is targeted toward working families.
Moreover, the DLC has not convinced me that we should turn away from advocating an activist government--one that, for example, sees healthcare as a basic right for all Americans. And while compromise is an acceptable end, too much of it too soon has led to a paralysis on fundamental concerns such as healthcare, gun safety, the environment and educational opportunity.
The critical point to be made by progressives in our national debate is this: While there are programs that have failed and should be reformed or eliminated, proactive government has often succeeded. An activist government was a driving force in the prosperity of the 1990s, as well as in providing our historic safety net, including Social Security, Medicare and Head Start. An activist government invested in the development of the Internet and the space program and spurred today's technological revolution. It was government investment that built our highways, air transit system and much of our communications network. And the list goes on. Without progressive leadership, would segregation have been outlawed? Would women have achieved as much access as they now have to equal rights? The pressure for advancement came from grassroots progressives. That said, reform and progress required our government to respond and lead. We're still far from the ideal, as racial profiling and unequal incomes for women and minorities attest. There are no African-American or Latino senators, but at least there are thirteen women senators--surely not enough, but more than there have ever been before. The lesson of history is clear: Equal rights for all depend on public action and so do equal pay, worker safety and retirement security. The barriers to opportunity for all don't just fall on their own.
Today, the progressive agenda must address the great unfinished challenges--for women, for middle-class families, for minorities and the poor. It's a hopeful agenda rooted in ideas and our ideals. As I put it in my Senate campaign, "Everyone ought to have the same access to the American promise I've had." America must be a society of equal opportunity and equal protection before the law. So I believe the progressive agenda of our party is more important than ever. And the principle that should guide us is clear: While we can't achieve equal outcomes, we can and must assure equal opportunity.
We also have to articulate the truth that advancing social and economic justice advances everyone's prosperity. We need to challenge the special interests that would limit the rights of labor and the opportunities of women and minorities, because we need all the talents of all our people to achieve maximum productivity and growth. We need to challenge the health insurance industry and finally win the battle for universal access to healthcare, because it is morally right and economically rational. Just because conservatives have demonized the term "universal healthcare" we should not walk away from that battle for the sake of a calculated centrism that splits the difference between right and wrong.
When I was a candidate, the polls said that the majority of New Jersey voters disagreed with my opposition to the death penalty. I'm grateful the voters respected that I said what I believed even when it wasn't popular. As progressives, we must be ready to do that. Most of the progressive agenda--healthcare, the environment, gun safety, a progressive tax policy-- reflects the values and the ideals of the majority of our people. They will vote for our agenda if we present it in practical terms and fight for it.
So while I respect the contribution of the DLC and while I respect its leaders, I'm not ready to join. The answer to "compassionate conservatism" isn't timid progressivism. It's a real commitment to equal opportunity, to fiscal responsibility and a fair society. We can and must be a party with the courage to stand tall for our beliefs because that's how we will be able to win as the party of the people.
Many compared it to marching through a dream.
After seven years under siege by 70,000 Mexican Army troops in the
jungles and highlands of Chiapas, the Zapatista National Liberation
Army (EZLN) sent twenty-four delegates, including its pipe-smoking
writer-spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, on a triumphant two-week
motorcade that landed in Mexico City on March 11.
believe that in any place, in any space in this world--and I have the
memory of my own revolution twenty-six years ago--I don't remember a
more moving moment than I lived yesterday," declared the
septuagenarian Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author José
Saramago the next morning.
The US press coverage of the
march, limited though it was, hinted at such an apotheosis: the
cheering multitudes that greeted the Zapatistas from the roadsides
and at mass rallies in twelve states along the route, the flowery
words of peace and civil rights coming to Mexico's mythical newfound
democracy. But for the Zapatistas and Mexico's indigenous movement,
the struggle now turns into a battle to codify the movement's
progress into law.
The caravan came to demand
constitutional recognition for Mexico's 10 million indigenous
citizens, subjected to generations of repression, poverty, racism and
exploitation of their lands and labor. As Mexico's President Vicente
Fox passed his hundredth day in office, he reiterated calls to the
Zapatistas to negotiate a peace. Not until the government fulfills
the promises it has already made, answered the rebels: release of
Zapatista political prisoners, closure of seven of the 259 military
bases in Chiapas, and congressional passage of the law that would
ratify the 1996 San Andrés peace agreements signed by the
government [see Jerry W. Sanders, "Two Mexicos and Fox's Quandary,"
The geographical advance was accompanied by a
steady rise in the popularity of Marcos and the Zapatistas in opinion
polls, an average gain of two percentage points per day, with over 50
percent in support. The implementation of the San Andrés
Accords is now the sticking point. Marcos and the Zapatistas, with
more than 1,000 delegates from the Indigenous National Congress,
encamped at the base of Mexico City's Cuicuilco pyramid--a circular,
370-foot-diameter stone monument that has survived at least 2,600
years of lava flows, earthquakes and urban
Underscoring their credo, "We will not sign a false
peace," the Zapatistas caused a fierce uproar when, as the caravan
was launched from San Cristóbal, Chiapas, they named architect
Fernando Yáñez Muñoz as their representative to
the federal Congress. Mexican police agencies have long claimed that
Yáñez is Comandante Germán, the feared national
guerrilla leader of the 1970s and '80s who, they say, helped found
the Zapatista army in the jungle in 1983, a charge that
Yáñez has denied. The Zapatistas have also, for the
first time, called upon other guerrilla movements to protect their
journey and remain alert, implying that if the state doesn't keep its
word, an armed guerrilla response could explode
María Luisa Tomasini, 78, a Chiapas
native designated by Marcos as the "grandmother of all the
Zapatistas," analyzed his call to the other insurgent groupsas she
was returning from the March 7 Zapatista rally in Iguala, Guerrero, a
state with at least sixteen armed clandestine guerrilla
organizations. "Clearly," she said, "it was a threat to the
government that it had better comply."
The powerful sectors
that have always gotten their way in Mexico--bankers, chambers of
commerce chiefs, right-wing clergy, the TV networks and key
legislators--are working furiously to sabotage the road to a genuine
peace. Fox's party, the PAN, teamed up with the former ruling party,
the PRI, against the left-wing PRD party to propose that the
Zapatistas meet with twenty congressional leaders instead of the
entire Congress. Marcos, noting that the indigenous of Mexico have
always been hidden "in the kitchen, on the back porch," rejected the
offer, arguing that the Zapatistas and the Indigenous National
Congress deserve to address the whole Congress. Hard-liners continue
to seek any roadblock to passage of the full indigenous rights bill
with hysterical claims that autonomy would fracture the nation, and
they vow radical surgery to the initiative.
On March 19 the
Zapatistas announced they will return to the jungle, citing the
"close minded" attitude of "cavemen politicians," saying, "Nothing
will be able to stop the popular mobilization" that stems from the
Congress's failure to act. "We will return with everyone who we are."
Immediately, thirteen national peasant-farmer groups pledged
nationwide marches, students plotted direct action and five major
indigenous groups in Oaxaca vowed to close the Pan American Highway
until Congress passes the accords. Congressional leaders begged the
Zapatistas to stay, Fox urged the Congress to meet with the rebels
and the drama now moves in unpredictable directions.
guiding principle of the San Andrés Accords is autonomy. The
word has galvanized many beyond Mexico's indigenous populations. The
battered Mexican left--peasant farmers, urban workers and especially
the nation's youth--view themselves, too, under the banner of
autonomy. Indeed, the popularity of the Zapatista struggle around the
world derives at least in part from the coherent language of
opposition to globalized and savage capitalism that they have
constructed. French sociologist Alain Torraine, who accompanied the
caravan, praised the Zapatistas during a March 12 discussion with
Marcos and the comandantes in Mexico City, marveling, "The entire
world, and we are speaking of the left, is looking for a new
language." Comandante David, a Tzotzil delegate who was a chief
negotiator and architect of the San Andrés Accords,
acknowledges that the demand for autonomy goes far beyond indigenous
rights. "We are going to explain directly to the indigenous and
nonindigenous brothers of the country that indigenous rights are for
the good of all the peoples," he said while preparing to leave on the
Autonomy--what might be called "home rule" in
other parts of the world--includes local control of land use, a sore
point for big business in Mexico, its eyes on natural
Beyond Mexico, US investors and corporate
interests, with expectations that Fox will be the most effective
deliveryman yet of Mexican resources under NAFTA, are stoking the
subterfuge. Former US Ambassador to Mexico James Jones, now a
railroad baron and rainmaker for the Manat, Phelps and Phillips law
and lobbying firm in Washington, is on the board of directors of TV
Azteca, the most notorious manipulator of public opinion among all
the Mexican media. TV Azteca joined the other broadcasting giant,
Televisa, to present a March 3 Concert for Peace live from Aztec
Stadium, featuring a laser light show, a Woodstock-style logo and the
usual condescension toward "our indigenous brothers." The prepackaged
video aired with the concert didn't mention autonomy, or indigenous
political prisoners, or 500 years of conquest--certainly not justice
in connection with the 1997 massacre of unarmed indigenous peasants
at Acteal. The only proposed solution was to send aid to the poor,
barefoot indigenous communities, an approach known in Mexican
politics as "clientism." Many analysts saw Fox's fingerprints on the
TV peace show, as both stations rely on state permission to broadcast
in Mexico. Indeed, one of the demands of the San Andrés
Accords is the right of indigenous peoples to break that control by
forming their own media, including the use of radio and television
The question of indigenous autonomy also has
consequences for the US-imposed "war on drugs." The San Andrés
Accords would restore indigenous rights to the use of currently
illicit sacred plants and codify the pre-eminence of ancient forms of
community justice. Luciano, a spokesman for the Zapatista community
of Polho, explained to me in 1998 how the autonomous system works
without constructing a single prison cell: "If a young man grows
marijuana, he goes before a municipal judge to be disciplined and
oriented so that he won't ever do it again. If the youth does it
again, there is no response whatsoever: He cannot be pardoned a
second time. He would then be expelled from the
That the Zapatista communities have had far
more success in driving out the narcotraffickers and preventing drug
and alcohol abuse than any other region of the Americas is of little
concern to the big talkers of law and order. Opponents charge that
autonomy in matters of criminal justice would "balkanize" the country
and subvert the "rule of law."
Indigenous and social
movements across Latin America--in Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru,
Panama, Brazil and other nations--had representatives quietly
observing the caravan. In spite of the powers stacked against them,
the Zapatistas, newly strengthened, their national support deepened,
have many cards yet to play in forcing legislative victory. In the
latest of the ironies under NAFTA, autonomy may thus, and soon,
become Mexico's leading export product.
Twenty years ago this season, when another new Republican President arrived in Washington to push for massive income-tax reductions, I was having breakfast every other Saturday morning with David Stockman, the brainy young budget director, and collecting his insider account of the Reagan revolution. Stockman was the enfant terrible who implemented the supply-side agenda and promised to achieve the improbable--reduce taxes dramatically and double defense spending, while cutting other federal programs sufficiently to produce a balanced budget. It didn't work out that way. Ronald Reagan's great legislative triumph of 1981 destabilized federal fiscal policy for nearly two decades, creating the massive structural deficits that were not finally extinguished until a few years ago. Washington seems about to replay history as farce, albeit on a less threatening scale. It prompts me to reflect on what, if anything, was learned from the revolution.
My private sessions with Stockman stretched over nine months and led to a controversial magazine article, "The Education of David Stockman," in which I disclosed the contradictions and internal swordplay behind Reaganomics, but the real sensation was Stockman's own growing doubts and disillusionment with the doctrine. Both of us were excoriated in the aftermath. The Gipper likened me to his would-be assassin John Hinckley. Stockman was roasted for duplicity and cynical manipulations; for concealing the truth about the looming deficits while Congress plunged forward in fateful error. Stockman was guileful, yes, but it was his intellectual honesty that shocked Washington. That brief moment of truth-telling resonates with the current delusions and deceptions. A lot of what he said twenty years ago seems painfully relevant.
"None of us really understands what's going on with all these numbers," the budget director confided during intense budget-cutting battles in the spring of 1981. That admission should be engraved over the door at the Treasury, the Capitol and the White House. Projections of fabulous budget surpluses that provide the premise for this year's political action are no less airy-fairy. Nonetheless, official fantasy becomes the operating truth, so long as everyone bows to it. Stockman's wishful forecasts on economic growth were nicknamed Rosy Scenario by his colleagues, but now the Congressional Budget Office has matched his rosiness. The economy is expanding this year by 2.4 percent and faster next year, according to the CBO. Actually, right now it's headed into the zero-minus territory known as recession.
Stockman's boldest accounting gimmick--reporting $40 billion in budget cuts but declining to identify them--was dubbed by insiders "the magic asterisk." Bush has already topped him with his "magic blueprint" and the miraculous "trillion-dollar reserve" he saves and spends at the same time. The new President has not actually issued a real budget, only a "blueprint" that leaves out the grisly, painful details of what spending will get whacked. Dubya sounds like the Queen of Hearts: Tax cuts first, punishment later! Congressional nerds protest, but Bush intends to ram through his tax cuts before anyone has been given an honest picture of the fiscal consequences.
"Do you realize the greed that came to the forefront?" Stockman exclaimed to me twenty years ago. "The hogs were really feeding." As the Reagan White House lost control of the action, Democrats and Republicans engaged in a furious bidding war to see which party could deliver more tax breaks and other boodle to the special-interest hogs (Republicans won, but the Dems gave it a good try). The Bushies recognize this danger and are trying to wall off the usual business greedheads from exploiting the same opening this year. The deal-making may still begin, however, if the White House is a few votes shy and needs to seduce a few hungry senators with special favors. As Stockman learned, if you buy one senator, you might have to buy them all.
Another of Stockman's vivid metaphors is the centerpiece for 2001--the "Trojan horse" approach to rewarding the rich. Giving everyone the same percentage rate cut sounds fair, but actually delivers most of the money to the very wealthy, who pay the top rate. Supply-side doctrine "was always a Trojan horse to bring down the top rate," Stockman revealed. "It's kind of hard to sell trickle-down economics, so the supply-side formula was the only way to get a tax policy that was really trickle down." This year's new wrinkle is a Keynesian twist. Instead of talking about rich investors who need a little encouragement to invest in America, Bush talks about the waitresses who need a little cash to pay off their credit-card debts.
The most disturbing difference I see in 2001 is political--the role reversal between the two major parties. What Republicans learned from the revolution is this: Deficit spending doesn't really count for that much in politics--not among average voters--and a party will not be punished for creating fiscal disorder as long as other good things seem to happen. Democrats used to understand this as a visceral matter but have forgotten the street-smarts their party knew in olden days. On fiscal discipline, the two have swapped positions. Republicans, once the scolds, are now the reckless feel-good party, willing to risk big deficits in order to deliver goodies to main constituencies. Democrats, perhaps wishing for respectability, have become the party of rectitude, preaching forbearance of pleasure. Republicans want voters to have a little fun. Democrats sound like nervous bookkeepers.
Leaving aside economic consequences, Democrats have dealt themselves a very weak position, even though they're largely right about the budget accounting. Most Americans are not fiscal experts and cannot be expected to absorb all the fine-print arguments about cause and effect. Think of the old Far Side cartoon with a dog listening to his master. All the dog hears is: "Fido, blah, blah, blah, Fido, blah, blah, blah." What voters hear from Republicans is: "Want to cut your taxes, blah, blah, blah, want to cut your taxes, blah, blah, blah." What voters hear from Democrats is: "Must pay down the debt first, blah, blah, blah, must pay down the debt first, blah, blah, blah." For skeptical voters with already low expectations of government, this is not a tough choice.
The great accomplishment of Reagan and the supply-siders was to persuade the old-guard Republican Party that its root- canal approach to fiscal policy was a loser--and that recklessness can be a win-win proposition for their side. If the Trojan horse approach succeeds in winning regressive tax-cuts, the GOP delivers huge rewards to its favorite clients. If this also creates a big hole in the federal budget, that's OK too, since runaway deficits will throw another collar around the size of the federal government and provide yet another reason to slash the liberals' social spending. With clever marketing, the GOP may even persuade voters it was spendthrift Democrats who created the red ink. Even recession is OK if the timing is as lucky as the Gipper's. When this recession ends, Bush will credit his tax cuts for the recovery and claim vindication in time for re-election.
Democrats, meanwhile, are the "responsibles," telling the people to save their allowance for a rainy day. They were led into this cul-de-sac by the champion of artful deception, Bill Clinton. Two years ago, when the prospect of burgeoning federal surpluses arose, Clinton devised a very clever ploy to hold off Republican tax-cutters. We will not spend the extra trillions, he announced, we will pay off the national debt. Democrats felt exceedingly virtuous about this position, although they understood that the subtext was quite different: The surpluses would allow government to do big things again for people--someday, but not yet. A different kind of leader might have recognized that politics doesn't wait for ten-year budget projections. If Democrats wished to accomplish big things like universal healthcare or helping debt-soaked families, they should have gone for it right then while the resources were available. Instead, Clinton's stratagem actually adopted the old-time religion that Reagan had shed--a loss of nerve that is the opposite of activist government. Some Dems are agitating to change that, proposing a genuine commitment to healthcare reform and other measures, but others have internalized the bookkeeper politics and are preaching hair-shirt economics: Cancel any tax cuts if a severe recession wipes out our sacred surplus. That's a righteous recipe for more pain.
One more point: Both parties are playing with a phony deck of cards. No matter what unfolds this season, the government is not going to reduce the "national debt." On the contrary, the government's total indebtedness is going to keep growing steadily, from $5.6 trillion right now to $6.7 trillion by 2011. Despite what you read in the newspapers, that occurs with or without tax cuts and even if all the outstanding Treasury bonds are paid off (if you still don't believe it, check the CBO's latest budget forecast with its chart on page 17). The awkward fact neither party brings up is that federal financing has depended crucially on collecting more money than it needs from working people since 1983, when both parties collaborated in a great crime of bait and switch. After Reagan cut taxes for the wealthy and business in 1981, he turned around two years later and raised Social Security payroll taxes dramatically on workers (earnings above $76,000 are exempted from Social Security taxes). Ever since, workers have been paying in extra money toward their future retirement--trillions more than needed now by Social Security--and the government simply borrows the surplus revenue to spend on other things: upper-income tax cuts or paying off Treasury bonds or reducing the fiscal damage from deficits in the operating budget.
Taxing one class of citizens--the broad ranks of working people--so government can devote the money to other people and purposes is not only wrong but profoundly deceptive, bait and switch on a grand scale. Government still owes workers the money, of course, and someday will have to find the borrowed trillions somewhere, either by raising taxes or borrowing the money or possibly by cutting Social Security benefits. When FICA taxes were raised in 1983, Reagan at first objected and reminded aides that he was opposed to raising taxes--of any kind. David Stockman reassured him. If the rising payroll-tax burden was imposed on young working people, they would eventually revolt and Social Security would self-destruct of its own weight. The Gipper liked that and gave his OK. The same objective, now called privatization, shows up again this year on George W. Bush's agenda. He proposes to "save" Social Security by destroying it.
Multinationals, their intellectual coverings shredded, are love-bombing labor while hunting for new fig leaves.
President George W. Bush's effort to repeal the estate tax has revealed contradictions in the nonprofit sector and confusion about what it values and where it stands.
The loudest applause during George W. Bush's first budget address to Congress--a thumping, shouting, jump-to-your-feet outpouring of enthusiasm--erupted in response to his first mention of his proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut. Coming at the end of a masterful but deceitful description, with more concealed trapdoors than a funhouse ride (they have the fun and we get taken for a ride), of how he could do everything from funding Social Security to paying down the debt and have money "still left over," Bush's proposal argued for returning that money "to the people who earned it in the first place."
The country is not buying. The latest Pew Research Center poll finds that only 19 percent of Americans think the current budget surplus should be used for a tax cut, and 79 percent believe the proposed Bush tax cut will most benefit the wealthy. Meanwhile, 60 percent want any surplus used for domestic programs as well as Social Security and Medicare.
Why, then, was the response to Bush's tax cut proposal so enthusiastic? Perhaps for the same reason that the words "campaign finance reform" never crossed Bush's lips, an omission Senator John McCain wryly noted in a CNN interview. The Wall Street Journal reported the morning after the speech that industry groups have formed a coalition to push the tax cuts in what one White House adviser described as "the largest PR campaign this party has ever conducted." The same adviser went on to say that the effort "will test if we can use the power of the White House and congressional control and the lobbying world to work our will."
With the cat thus out of the bag, Bush's budget should be pronounced dead on arrival. Now is the moment for the minority party to put forth a sensible alternative: No new tax breaks for the wealthy. An earlier, bigger check--either in the form of a tax credit or a "prosperity dividend"--for middle- and low-income earners, to jump-start the economy. Prescription drug coverage for seniors and affordable healthcare for all. Investment in schools and teachers' salaries. Investment to combat the growing shortage of affordable rental housing. Electoral reforms that will insure that every vote is counted.
In opposition, Democrats find it difficult to speak with one voice. A few have already thrown in their lot with Bush. Others are looking to deal. Still others seem stuck on paying down the debt as their prime concern. Thus it is vital that progressives in the party--and the increasingly vibrant base of the party that is central to its electoral hopes--speak out independently to force the debate. Here the Progressive Caucus has done well by pushing its prosperity dividend, which would give every American a $300 check in contrast to Bush's tax giveaway to the rich. Responsible Wealth has done remarkable work organizing the statement by about 120 of America's richest men and women against estate-tax repeal. The large coalition of groups convened to fight the tax cuts--under the leadership of progressive unions, civil rights groups and the public interest community--will help stiffen the backbone of faltering legislators. The Campaign for America's Future's plan for creating a progressive leadership organization will help define and broadcast the choice we face.
Bush has benefited, of course, from the continuing press focus on former President Clinton's tawdry unpardonables and his legacy of political timidity and tactical retreat. Now, progressives must force Democrats to shed that defensiveness. The country did not vote for the Bush agenda, and the vast majority will not benefit from it. Time to go on the attack. This is a fight that can be won.
At Brazil's "counter-Davos," democracy was in; elitism, corporations were out.
His dream is an open northern border. But first, he must end southern poverty.
As proven by this pardon,
Two facts of life prevail:
The rich have got the money
And everything's for sale.