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The emerging fight over the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill, which Senator John McCain has promised to bring up right after George W. Bush's installation as President, has little, if anything, to do with real reform. Rather, this is primarily an intraparty scrap over who will define the early days of Bush's term--Bush and Senate Republican leaders or the maverick McCain with Democrats in tow--and who will determine the new parameters of "bipartisanship." McCain needs sixty votes to stop the traditional filibuster by Republican leaders Trent Lott and Mitch McConnell, and with the turnover in the Senate, the Democratic gain of four seats and the conversion of Mississippi Republican Thad Cochran to the cause, McCain may now have them. But the Republicans may well try, with the witting or unwitting help of a few Democrats, to pass a toad and call it a prince.
The McCain-Feingold bill would do some worthwhile things. It would end the flow of unregulated soft money into national party coffers, codify the Supreme Court's Beck decision pertaining to the use of union dues for political purposes (which organized labor accepts, since it affects only a small number of nonunion members--those who pay dues for certain services and will be allowed to opt out of paying the portion spent on politics) and would possibly include a friendly provision offered by moderate Republicans to restrict how corporations and unions can spend money on political ads aired during the final months of election campaigns. Some Republicans may favor the bill because the Democratic Party is now almost even in the soft-money race. But nothing in it would end the money chase that keeps many good people from running for office; nor would it put a real dent in the process of influence-peddling that defines day-to-day life in Washington. Even at an estimated $457 million in 2000, soft money, the subject of so many New York Times editorials, amounted to only about 16 percent of the roughly $3 billion raised for this year's national auctions--ahem--elections. That's a big jump over the $265 million in soft money raised in 1996 but not much of a change compared with the $2.2 billion raised overall that year.
Feingold is a decent man who courageously called on his own party last summer at its Los Angeles convention to stop unilaterally the outrageous fundraising that goes on at those events. He understands the limits of his bill and is on record firmly supporting full public financing of campaigns, as is now done in Clean Elections states like Maine, Arizona, Vermont and (starting this spring) Massachusetts. McCain, on the other hand, is an excitable right-winger who has ridden the finance issue to unexpected stature. He's a far from reliable ally of reform groups, who are hungry to make some headway against the growing corruption of the electoral process by big money. And there lies the danger.
In order to pass a bill that Bush might sign, McCain has signaled that he may accept, in exchange for a soft-money ban, amendments that would allow an increase, possibly even a tripling, of the limits on hard money an individual may donate. Lots of incumbents--Democrats and Republicans alike--secretly like this devil's bargain, because they think it would make it easier to raise the hard dollars they so desperately need for their campaigns. They also argue, irrelevantly, that inflation has reduced the value of a $1,000 contribution, the limit set in 1974, to $300. The Supreme Court disposed of this argument a year ago, in Nixon v. Shrink, when it upheld even lower limits as a way to prevent electoral corruption, pointedly stating that "the dictates of the First Amendment are not mere functions of the Consumer Price Index."
An increase in the hard-money limits would certainly encourage "buy-partisanship"--the process by which wealthy donors buy one party and get the other free. Fewer than 121,000 people gave $1,000 or more to a winning federal candidate in the 2000 elections, less than 0.05 percent of the population. Tripling the amount they could give would further empower this narrow slice of America, which is disproportionately wealthy, white and male. It could also increase the gap between the business and labor contributions to a whopping billion dollars. Two leading reform groups, Public Campaign and US PIRG, are against any such trade-off, but others, like the business-driven Committee for Economic Development, are for it, with Common Cause somewhere in between. Labor and civil rights groups, their attention focused on Bush's Cabinet nominees, should take heed. The passage of a straightforward soft-money ban would be a good thing--and we'd like to see Congress look seriously at the Clean Election reforms taking root in the states. But this new Congress may try to pass a bad bill, call it reform and hope no one hears the protests.
Mandate or no, George W. Bush is forging ahead with Cabinet appointments, policy forums and talk of a "first 100 days." Bush and his team have assembled a Cabinet faster than any administration since Richard Nixon's, and before Bush takes the oath of office on January 20 they'll have laid the groundwork for passage of an agenda that closely resembles the worst-case scenario painted by Bush critics during the 2000 campaign.
Bush's appointments to the EPA, Interior and Energy look ready to lead a furious offensive against environmental regulation and common sense. His appointments to Labor and Justice promise an assault on choice, civil rights and worker rights. His heralded national security team looks resolutely backward to a cold war that isn't, and seems oblivious to the world as it is. No wonder the Reagan cinematic fantasy--Star Wars, missile defense--is paraded as an early priority.
Post-mortems and recriminations must now give way to action, beginning with a flood of e-mails, telegrams and letters of protest to the Capitol Hill offices not just of Republicans but of wavering Democrats who have the power to brake the Bush bandwagon. This is no time for bipartisan blather. "Those who are with the civil rights agenda must not choose collegiality over civil rights and social justice," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Democratic members of Congress need to know that they cannot expect the core of their party--women, minorities, workers--to turn out on Election Day only to have their interests abandoned the day after, and that those who surrender in this fight will not be forgotten and not be forgiven. We must make it clear that we are not prepared to refight the battles of the last decades on basic human rights. We are not prepared to surrender to another era of race-bait politics, or to send poor women back to the alleys for abortions, or to lay waste our environment in the interest of big oil.
The frontline troops of this movement are already mobilizing. Civil rights groups and others will take to the streets of Washington starting on January 15, Martin Luther King Day, and continuing through the Inauguration; they will raise necessary questions about the legitimacy of Bush's election and press for voting reforms that guarantee more representative results in the future. The AFL-CIO has pledged to oppose archconservative John Ashcroft's nomination for Attorney General, as have People for the American Way and the Black Leadership Forum (see comments on Ashcroft on pages 4 and 5). Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League have joined that challenge while also promising to oppose Health and Human Services Department nominee Tommy Thompson, who presided over a severe curtailment of access to reproductive rights as governor of Wisconsin.
But the real work must go on at the grassroots--starting now and continuing up to and including the 2002 elections. (For more information on protests and ways to get involved, go to Counter-Inaugural Calendar at www.thenation.com). It is only by exerting constant upward pressure that we can explode the myth of bipartisanship and prevent the Bush presidency from rolling over the will of the great majority of Americans.
Congress cannot salute Dr. King's dream and then go on to pass the dream-busting Bush agenda. Beginning with the Bush nominations, every lawmaker on Capitol Hill must be challenged to stand up, as Dr. King did, for justice.
Who are George Bush's bipartisan Democrats?
A cold snowy start to the new year, the first day of the new millennium. Not the fun one with champagne at the Pyramids and the all-night, round-the-globe pseudoprofundities and the secret letdown when our computers didn't turn into pumpkins at midnight. I mean the real millennium, with the bad news bears basking on their ice floes as the stock market sinks and thousands tremble as The Anxious Consumer ponders whether to spring for the new Chevrolet Astro or live with the old Dodge Caravan a bit longer. On the radio a mom explained that her kids just wanted gift certificates for Christmas so they could take advantage of the post-holiday sales. How old are these kids? 50? This morning, same station, a man from the Cato Institute instructs us to count our blessings: We are all a lot better off than a hundred years ago; after all, Americans are two inches taller now.
On New Year's Day, a stern young black man missing his front teeth preaches on the subway: "Mr. Black Man! Mr. White Man! What is the meaning of Eternity? Repent! Repent!" He stalks the aisle, dressed all in black and carrying a blood-red Bible, like a mad priest in an opera, while passengers stare stonily into the headlines: I'm Sacking Satan, declares ex-Jet Marc Gastineau in the New York Post, once again evading jail for beating his wife, who like him has gone into Christian therapy ("'I contributed to a lot of the violence,' said the slight, 5-foot-5 woman"). In the passageway between stations, a tiny man of unguessable age wearing a filthy Ralph Lauren American Flag sweater plays a violin as if it were an unfamiliar object he had found in the trash; a young black man sings Beatles songs expertly and with unflagging good cheer. The Christmas-caroling street minister with the fantastic baritone voice is gone, but the Chinese musician is still seated on the L train platform, bending in total concentration over his pipa, an elegant longnecked stringed instrument that emits at the touch of his bow a thin wail, like a dying cat.
My father turns 81 in his hospital bed. After three brain surgeries, who knows what he understands? Flowers arrive that he does not look at; cards are read that he does not listen to. Friends arrive with "get well" offerings--a sleep mask, earplugs, pictures of their children--and leave quickly, stricken. Newly arrived from England, a Kazakh friend complains, "They won't move him to the other bed, although I keep asking!" It seems that bed is the lucky one, the one where the patients get better. A staggering amount of medical help and equipment swirls around my father; it is as though experts have been summoned from all over the world--a doctor from Korea, nurses from the Philippines and Ireland, aides from Jamaica and Guyana and India and Central America--all for the express purpose of tending a few limp, pale Americans. And yet the simplest realities--that my father has eaten essentially nothing for almost two weeks--seem to evoke no sense of urgency, to fall into the spaces between specialists and between changing shifts.
In Man's Fate, the Russian Communist Katov prepares himself to be thrown alive into a furnace after the Shanghai rebellion he helped organize is betrayed by Stalin. He says to himself, "Let's suppose I died in a fire." What style, I thought as a teenager, what cool. Today I think: Well, it would be scary and painful, but at least it would be quick. And by dying in 1927, Katov got to keep his political dignity: He didn't have to persuade himself that voting for a protest candidate was a radical act or inveigh against "global capitalism," or "corporate capitalism," as if there were some other kind--national capitalism? mom-and-pop capitalism?--that could be brought out of the closet of history, and donned like a comfy old suit.
I had planned a very different column--upbeat and energetic, with exhortations to do more and a list of clever resolutions. I e-mailed my whole address book asking for suggestions for feminist activism. I don't know what I was hoping for--seize the TV stations? Dangle John Ashcroft off a skyscraper till he promises to spend the rest of his life cleaning abortion clinic toilets? Raise a lesbian militia to fight the Taliban? What came in was nothing like that. Write letters, the activists said, make phone calls, raise money, bother your politicians, volunteer. Challenge the sexism of daily life, the writers wrote: racist and sexist remarks, panels with no women, all-male magazine forums and debates. Link issue A with issue B, the academics urged.
Fine, but according to Newsweek, there are now 1 million slaves in America, mostly women and girls--cleaning houses, making clothes, servicing men sexually to pay off traffickers and pimps. Ask yourself what kind of man would fuck a slave, some Chinese or Albanian or Thai teenager in a plywood cubicle with a mattress on the floor. Do you think he cares if you write a letter to your congressman? Maybe he is your congressman.
The world spins only forward, says Prior Walter in Angels in America. But which way is that? Most members of my study group think intellectuals and activists have no special role to play in history. They only perch atop its shifting tectonic plates, ready to jump on the backs of the workers at the first sign of autonomous action. "The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing," quotes the Last Marxist at least once per meeting, which goes on all day and ends with a wonderful meal. Last time, we invited the Race Traitors--Noel Ignatiev, John Garvey, Beth Henson--and accused them of daring to think they could spark a movement with a magazine and a book. Wow, said Noel, you guys are really depressed. Yes, I said, usually it takes us all day to feel this irrelevant, and it isn't even lunchtime yet.
I go home in the snow, I e-mail the President to save the Alaskan wilderness, proving yet again that I have no dignity and do not read my own columns. At bedtime we read aloud from Mona in the Promised Land, by my daughter's favorite contemporary American writer, Gish Jen.
"If there's a depression, will we have enough money?" Sophie asks as we turn out the light. "Don't worry about it," I say. "Everything will be fine. We can always sing in the subway."
If the absence of soldiers seizing cable networks is the ultimate standard of meaningful democratic empowerment, we're not doing half bad.
Bush v. Gore is a fitting start to the next four deranged years.
Bill Clinton is moving to install Terry McAuliffe as the head of the DNC, a cynical move in this day of pay-to-play politics.
Bush v. Gore may have superficially resolved a short-run political crisis, but it has triggered a deep intellectual crisis.
We shall see very little of the charmingly simian George W. Bush—the military—Cheney, Powell et al.--will be calling the tune, and the whole nation will be on constant alert.