With little public notice and no serious debate inside the party, Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe and his allies have hatched a plan to radically alter the schedule and character of the 2004 Democratic presidential nominating process. If the changes McAuliffe proposes are implemented--as is expected at a January 17-19 meeting of the full DNC--the role of grassroots Democrats in the nomination of their party's challenger to George W. Bush will be dramatically reduced, as will the likelihood that the Democratic nominee will run the sort of populist, people-power campaign that might actually pose a threat to Bush's re-election.
The change, for which McAuliffe gained approval in November from the DNC rules subcommittee, would create a Democratic primary and caucus calendar that permits all states to begin selecting delegates on February 3, 2004. That new start-up date would come two weeks after the Iowa caucuses and just one week after the traditional "first in the nation" New Hampshire primary. Thus, the window between New Hampshire and the next primary--five weeks in 2000--would be closed. Already, says McAuliffe, South Carolina, Michigan and Arizona Democrats have indicated they will grab early February dates, and there is talk that California--the big enchilada in Democratic delegate selection--will move its primary forward to take advantage of the opening. McAuliffe's changes will collapse the nominating process into a fast-and-furious frenzy of television advertising, tarmac-tapping photo ops and power-broker positioning that will leave little room for the on-the-ground organizing and campaigning that might allow dark horse candidates or dissenting ideas to gain any kind of traction--let alone a real role at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
"What McAuliffe is doing represents a continuation of the shift of influence inside the Democratic Party from volunteer-driven, precinct-based grassroots politics to a cadre of consultants, hacks and Washington insiders," says Mike Dolan, the veteran organizer who ran voter-registration campaigns for the California Democratic Party before serving as national field director for MTV's "Rock the Vote" initiative. "This whole process of reshaping the party to exclude people at home from the equation has been going on for years, but this really is the most serious change we've seen. And it's an incredibly disturbing shift. It will increase the power of the consultants and the fundraisers. But it will also make it a lot harder to build the enthusiasm and volunteer base a candidate needs to win in November."
McAuliffe, who is riding high after playing an important role in securing Democratic wins in November 2001 races for the Virginia and New Jersey governorships, says reforms are needed to avoid long, intraparty struggles and allow a clear focus on the task of challenging Bush. With a wide field of Democratic senators, governors, representatives and a former Vice President positioning to run in 2004, he says, "We can't be going through the spring with our guys killing each other."
McAuliffe makes no secret of his desire to have Democrats mirror the Republicans' compressed nominating schedule-- which helped front-runner Bush dispatch the more appealing John McCain in 2000. He wants his party's 2004 nominee identified by early March. Then, the nominee-in-waiting can get down to the business of fundraising and organizing a fall campaign without having to march in Chicago's St. Patrick's Day parade, visit Wisconsin's dairy farms or jostle for a position on the stage of Ohio's union halls.
One problem with McAuliffe's theory is that history suggests that Democrats who beat sitting Republican Presidents usually do so following extended nomination fights. In 1976, for instance, almost three months passed between the Iowa caucus and the point at which a majority of delegates to the Democratic National Convention had been selected. That convention nominated Jimmy Carter, who went on to beat President Gerald Ford. The next Democrat to beat a Republican President, Bill Clinton, won his party's 1992 nod after a bruising primary season that saw him fighting Jerry Brown for New York votes two months after the delegate-selection process began.
A serious state-by-state fight for the party nod can force the eventual nominee to build grassroots networks in key states that withstand the media assaults of the fall; just think how things would have gone if Al Gore had developed better on-the-ground operations in states with solid labor bases, like Missouri, West Virginia and Ohio--any one of which could have provided the Electoral College votes needed to render Florida's recount inconsequential. Instead of recognizing the advantage Democrats gain when they tend the grassroots, however, former candidate Brown says McAuliffe appears to be steering the party toward a model that mirrors Republican approaches. "The process is evolving and it's changing so that it will be even harder to tell Democrats from Republicans," Brown says. "This means the Democrats will be defined more than ever by money and the centralized, Washington-based establishment that trades in money. The trajectory the party is on is not toward greater democracy, not toward more involvement at the grassroots. Rather, the trajectory will make it harder for the local to influence the national. A historic democratic influence on the process is being wiped out, and with it will go a lot of energy Democratic nominees have been able to rely on in the past."
Brown touches on another problem with McAuliffe's approach. In a party already badly warped by the influence of special-interest money and fundraising demands, the new schedule will greatly expand the influence of big money--and of Washington insiders like veteran fundraiser McAuliffe, who can move that money into accounts of "acceptable," if not particularly progressive, candidates. "Everyone agrees the financial demands on candidates will be even higher than in the past, given the breakneck pace at which the contests will unfold," explains Washington Post columnist David Broder.
That bodes well for the best-known candidates with the strongest fundraising networks, like former Vice President Al Gore and Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, and also for well-heeled senators like Massachusetts' John Kerry and North Carolina's John Edwards. But low-budget, issue-driven campaigns, like those imagined by Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur of Ohio or outgoing Vermont Governor Howard Dean, will be even more difficult to mount. That, says former Democratic National Committee chairman Fred Harris, is bad news for the party and for progressive politics in America. "If you tighten up all the primaries at the start, it will limit the serious choices for Democrats to those candidates who are well-known or well-financed, or both. That takes away the range of choices, it makes the process less exciting and, ultimately, less connected to the grassroots," says Harris, a former senator and 1976 candidate for the presidency. "This really is a move in the wrong direction. The Democratic Party, to win, needs to be more democratic--not less."
Republican majority leader Dick Armey announced that he will retire from Congress, and Democrats are hoping that Tom DeLay will replace him.
Civil liberties get short shrift in this perilous time of antiterrorism measures.
The win in Virginia of Democrat Mark Warner is one sign of welcome political change.
In trying to avoid being seen as unpatriotic, they risk looking like lapdogs.
Battling the war
profiteers of World War I, Robert La Follette reminded America that
"wealth has never yet sacrificed itself on the altar of patriotism."
The progressive senator from Wisconsin was complaining about arms
merchants reaping excessive profits from the sale of weaponry in
1917. But La Follette's words echo with particular clarity in the
aftermath of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the
Pentagon because of the rise of another form of war profiteering. In
an attempt to gain the upper hand in a fight they had been losing,
Bush Administration and Congressional supporters of fast track--or,
as supporters have renamed it, "Trade Promotion Authority"--were
telling Congress Daily within hours of the September 11
attacks that terrorist threats increased the need to grant Bush
authority to negotiate a NAFTA-style free-trade area from Tierra del
Fuego to the Tundra.
With each passing day, these policy
profiteers have pumped up the volume. Iowa Senator Charles Grassley,
the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, announced,
"Passing trade promotion authority for the President would send a
strong signal to the rest of the world that the United States is
ready, willing and able to lead." The Wall Street Journal
editorial page chirped about how "not everything has changed for the
worse since September 11. One garden at the skunk party has been the
emergence of new bipartisan momentum to expand free trade,
specifically something called 'Trade Promotion Authority.'" US Trade
Representative Robert Zoellick was everywhere preaching his
"Countering Terror With Trade" mantra, a campaign so aggressive it
left even Republicans scratching their heads. "I am not sure a trade
bill has anything to do with terrorism," said Ohio Republican
Congressman Bob Ney.
But Zoellick wasn't listening to
Republicans who warned that an aggressive push for fast track could
be the straw that breaks the back of the post-September 11
bipartisanship. Less than two weeks after the attacks, Zoellick
delivered a speech at the Institute for International Economics that
seemed to question the patriotism of fast-track foes. Members of
Congress "who know trade is the right thing to do are refusing to act
for rather narrow-interest reasons," the Bush aide declared, adding,
"Trade is about more than economic efficiency. It promotes the values
at the heart of this protracted struggle."
That was too
much for New York Congressman Charles Rangel, the ranking Democrat on
the House Ways and Means Committee. Rangel issued a scathing rebuke
to Zoellick's policy profiteering. "As a combat war veteran and as a
person whose city has been attacked and suffered devastating losses
as a result, I am offended by the strategy of the current United
States Trade Representative to use the tragedy in New York and at the
Pentagon to fuel political momentum behind a partisan fast-track
proposal," Rangel said, adding, "To have the USTR attack the
patriotism of Americans for their failure to support an unwritten,
undisclosed bill demands a public apology."
Zoellick's point man in the House, Bill Thomas, the California
Republican who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, claimed he had
consulted key Democrats about a move to push a bipartisan fast-track
compromise through the House, Rangel shot back that the Democrats in
question "have expressed to me in no uncertain terms that they do not
subscribe to this attempt to wrap the flag around any fast-track bill
in the wake of the September 11 attacks." Undaunted, Thomas said he'd
try to bring a bill to a floor vote by the second week of
Long before September 11, the debate over fast
track was destined to be intense. Bush, aided by major corporations,
had promised to pull out all the stops. But labor, environment and
human rights groups thwarted them by reminding Congress that since
the enactment of NAFTA in 1994, more than 355,000 US jobs (even by
the government's conservative estimate) have been lost. Small farms
have failed at a significantly increased rate, and environmental and
worker safety protections have been undermined at home and abroad.
"If the Administration had the votes for fast track, before September
11 or after, we would have had a vote. They still don't have the
votes, but they're trying everything to come up with them," says
Patrick Woodall, research director for Public Citizen's Global Trade
Zoellick and Thomas are hardly the only policy
profiteers. The threat of war and recession has inspired plenty of
moves to wrap unappealing agendas in the bunting of patriotism.
School-prayer and flag-protection amendments are being elbowed onto
the antiterrorist agenda, while Attorney General John Ashcroft pushed
hard to win approval of dusted-off proposals to curtail immigrants'
rights, expand electronic surveillance and allow use of intelligence
gathered by foreign governments in US courts [see Bruce Shapiro, "All
in the Name of Security," page 20]. Playing the patriotism card in
support of Ashcroft, GOP Senate leader Trent Lott warned the
Democrats that in the event of another attack, "people are going to
wonder where have you been in giving the additional tools that are
needed to, you know, find these terrorists and avoid plots that may
be in place."
Bush aides have proposed cutting corporate
income taxes, while House Republicans are flying the capital-gains
tax-cut flag. Although the attacks proved that there are far more
pressing security needs than developing a National Missile Defense
system, Star Wars backers are still attempting to get funding for
their boondoggle. And backers of the Administration's energy proposal
now want an "expedited energy bill" designed to clear the way for
drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Washington is witnessing shameless policy profiteering, state
legislatures have seen surreal grabs for political advantage. A
Republican state representative in Wisconsin announced that after so
many deaths, it was time to renew America's commitment to life--by
passing his antiabortion bill. In states that bar capital punishment,
proposals were made to allow executions as antiterrorist
measures--failing to recognize the absurdity of threatening suicide
attackers with death.
Every war has its profiteers. But it
looks like this one is going to require an army of La Follettes to
prevent this war's policy profiteers from warping the discourse--not
to mention plundering the Treasury--in the name of a "patriotism"
defined solely by self-interest.
So long, politics? As George W. Bush mounted Operation Noble Eagle, Republicans and Democrats found little over which to disagree. In the days after the September 11 terror attack, the entire House and Senate--with the exception of one Congresswoman--approved a resolution of war that granted Bush wide latitude. (Congress declared war, but Bush will designate the enemy.) The Senate OK'd by voice vote the controversial nomination of John Negroponte to be UN ambassador. Congress passed $40 billion in emergency funds and ceded Bush great control over their disbursement. The Senate, with little deliberation, endorsed quickly prepared legislation to expand the government's ability to wiretap suspected terrorists and to order the CIA to scuttle rules on the recruitment of informants with violent pasts. A $15 billion bailout of the airline industry nearly sailed through the House. Republican and Democratic Congressional leaders hailed the sublimation of partisan differences. House majority whip Tom DeLay even jettisoned his opposition to paying back dues to the United Nations.
Who can say how long comity will last? The Democrats' agenda has vanished as the party tries to work out the dilemmas of being in opposition during a time of declared (if not actual) war. "We're confused, as you might imagine," says a liberal House Democrat. "My fear is that most members will give Bush everything he wants and try to adjourn as quickly as possible, not have any tough votes, no debates that might get them into trouble. Every Democratic issue is down the drain." For instance, Representative Marty Meehan, a Massachusetts Democrat, suspended his almost-successful attempt at forcing Republican House leaders to bring his campaign finance reform bill up for a vote. "All efforts are on helping New York City and the Pentagon rebuild," a Meehan aide explains. House and Senate Democrats shelved provisions that imposed limits on national missile defense funding. "No one wants to look partisan now," says a Democratic Senate aide. "You can argue SDI money is better spent elsewhere, but no Democrat wants to give Bush and the Republicans the opportunity of pointing a finger and saying, 'There they go.'"
It was Bush, not a Democrat, who publicly noted that Washington must remember that a domestic agenda remains. "Sure," says a Democratic Congressional aide, "education and a patients' bill of rights, on his terms now." As members of Congress returned to Washington, Democrats were hoping the Republicans would not move fast with a proposal for a capital gains tax cut. "If they push this forward under the cover of crisis, it will be very difficult to stop," the aide remarks.
On the Democratic side, Representative Barney Frank has tried to initiate one crafty strategic thrust. The liberal Democrat drafted legislation to rescind the reduction in the top income tax rate that passed as part of Bush's tax cut. That particular cut mainly benefits the top 1 percent, and Frank would devote the billions rescued to Social Security and Medicare. "This would let us spend $100 billion on reconstruction, airport security, military action, the economy, without tapping the Social Security surplus," Frank says. "The Republicans promised not to touch Social Security; this would allow them to keep their promise."
Frank's colleagues applauded when he described the bill at a Democratic caucus meeting. But the GOPers will certainly seek to smother Frank's legislation, and they have the means to do it. Credit Frank with attempting to provide the Democrats an active position of their own. The question is, Do enough of his colleagues want one? "Great idea," says a House Democrat. "I just don't know if we're strong enough to do this."
Another unknown is whether Democrats and Republicans will skirmish over the attack-related matters that will dominate Washington. A dramatic boost in Pentagon spending appears a certainty. Will there be disagreement over how much? (Some GOPers yearn for a 25 percent increase.) The Administration will be pressing assorted law enforcement and security initiatives. Senator Pat Leahy, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has signaled that he's not eager to rubber-stamp new measures with civil liberties consequences. And Senator Russ Feingold, who chairs a judiciary subcommittee, has declared he feels "a special duty to defend our Constitution against proposals, born of an understandable desire for vengeance and justice, that would undermine the constitutional liberties that make this country what it is." Yet how much of a fight might arise? "The mood is basically to cave," says Julian Epstein, the former minority staff director of the House Judiciary Committee. But Epstein believes a partisan clash could materialize if the Republicans get greedy and push for too much.
"This all will be very frustrating," says a senior House Democratic aide. "Who knows how long a war on terrorism takes?" Noting disappointment with his leader, a Democratic Congressman remarks, "Dick Gephardt said there should be no light and no air between us and the President. But there have to be things worthy of debate. It's not political bickering to deal with the economy and civil liberties. There are debates to be had--even if most people want to run out of town."
When Congress voted to authorize the Bush Administration to use military force in response to the September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Representative Barbara Lee stood alone in opposition to what she saw as a "rush to judgment." Lee, the California Democrat who holds the Bay Area seat once occupied by antiwar activist Ron Dellums, spoke with John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, this week.
THE NATION: How did you reach the decision to oppose authorizing the use of force?
LEE: I was at the National Cathedral in Washington. I went to the memorial service on the Friday after the attacks and I prayed. I said to myself, "You've got to figure this one out." I was dealing with all the grief and sorrow and the loss of life, and it was very personal because a member of my staff had lost a cousin in the Pennsylvania crash. I was thinking about my responsibility as a member of Congress to try to insure that this never happens again. I listened to the remarks of the clergy. Many of them made profound statements. But I was struck by what one of them said: "As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore." That was such a wise statement, and it reflected not only what I was feeling but also my understanding of the threats we continue to face. When I left the cathedral, I was fairly resolved.
THE NATION: Were you also concerned about the constitutional implications of the vote?
LEE: Absolutely. Given the three branches of government, and given that each has a role in the making of monumental decisions such as this, I thought the Congress had a responsibility in this instance especially to step back and say,"Let's not rush to judgment. Let us insist that our democracy works by insuring that the checks and balances work and that the Congress is a part of the decision-making process in terms of when we go to war and with whom.... I think we disenfranchised the American people when we took their representatives out of the decision-making on whether to go to war with a specific nation.
THE NATION: Were you surprised that no other members of Congress voted with you?
LEE: It never dawned on me that I would cast the only vote against this resolution. Many members asked me to change my position. They were friends, and they said, "You do not want to be out there alone." I said, "Oh, no, don't worry. There will be others." When there weren't, I said, "Oh my God." I could not believe it. It was an awesome feeling. And a lonely feeling.
THE NATION: You mentioned that other members said, "You don't want to be out there alone." Do you think other members shared your concerns but were unwilling to cast a risky vote with emotions running so high?
LEE: If you read the floor statements. you'll see that there are many members of Congress who share my concerns. I think that, when I cast that vote, I was speaking for other people in Congress and outside Congress who want a more deliberative approach.
THE NATION: At the same time, you have received precisely the sort of criticism that most politicians fear.
LEE: I've been called a traitor, a coward, a communist, all the awful stuff. It's been quite difficult for me. But I still believe that I cast the right vote. My district, I think, understands this vote.... I've gotten probably 20,000 e-mails. At first, there were a lot of very harsh messages. But now we are hearing more from people who are saying, "Yes, let's use some restraint. Yes, let's break the cycle of violence if we can." I think the further we get away from that tragic day, the more we will hear those voices of reason.
The lesson of fifteen years is that real change requires a people's movement.
He may have been screwed out of the election, but he's still a terrible candidate.