Raise the Bar

Raise the Bar

Grassroots Democrats, parched for their party’s attention, should play hardball with candidates on Iraq.


We are halfway through February and there’s no end in sight. As Barack Obama pulls ahead in the neck-and-neck race, the latest specter to excite election observers is the possibility of a nail-biter decided by superdelegates. Should unpledged party operatives and officials not chosen by primary and caucus voters pick the Democrats’ next nominee? It would not be the first time popular hopes were dashed by Democratic leaders. Remember 2006.

On November 7, 2006, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans at the polls for the first time in any midterm since 1990. Repelled by the Bush Administration’s record at home and abroad, voters turned out in droves and elected a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. As in 2004, people didn’t merely cast ballots; they walked blocks, raised money, monitored polling places and canvassed strangers in far-off states urging them to vote. Asked in exit polls what was their most pressing issue, 40 percent of Democrats identified Iraq. No other issue came close.

Fourteen months on, the Democratic majority (albeit slim in the Senate) has disappointed those voters, and Congressional approval ratings are down below Bush’s. Not only has the deadly deployment in Iraq not ended; the number of troops there has increased, and both of the party’s would-be nominees–along with the majority of Democrats in Congress–have refused to use their power of the purse to cut off funds for the war. Party leaders have dismissed every demand for impeachment investigations of the Bush cabal. As for restoring the habeas corpus rights of noncitizen detainees, eliminating military tribunals or roundly repudiating the Administration’s policies on spying and torture–no luck. Even on the less politically loaded issues of domestic security and economic justice, not much has changed except that today it’s not only New Orleanians who are losing their homes. The real and metaphorical levees around our cities and farms just keep crumbling.

Like desert flowers in Death Valley, grassroots Democrats have sprung into action again this season in part because they’re parched for their party’s attention. Dolores Huerta, chair of Women for Kerry in 2004, told me last year that many women are excited simply to have a candidate who doesn’t take their votes for granted. (John Kerry famously told a gathering of Women for Kerry that he wasn’t going to single out women for attention because he didn’t want to “pander” to a “special interest.”) Huerta’s United Farm Workers of America endorsed Hillary Clinton shortly before the California primary, and female and Latino voters carried their candidate to victory there, just as African-Americans and young voters have bedrocked Senator Obama in part because they feel he actually cares about them.

But an invitation to the party is not the same as a seat at the table. The young voters, poor voters, secular, female, people of color, lesbian and gay, progressive and antiwar voters who have the candidates’ attention at the moment belong to the part of the Democratic base whose interests are perennially sidelined by party higher-ups come the general election–and way before anyone gets down to the pay-to-play business of governing.

In contrast to the GOP–whose leaders bow and scrape before every religious extremist all election year–those at the top of the Democratic pyramid run away from their base as soon as the primaries end in order to pander to the so-called center and swing voters [see Flanders, “A New Moment?” at Tomdispatch.com]. This extended primary season offers an unusual period in the sun for progressives, but it’s not enough to bask. Activists must raise the bar on policy and barter their support for some solid commitments.

Scared of losing their tax-exempt status, many groups sit out elections. (Boy, how the IRS keeps us in line!) But nonprofit 501(c)(3)s can publish voter guides, scrutinize the contenders’ records and help their members push the candidates on their platform pledges. Racism in the criminal justice system is an Obama issue, for example, but his website omits any mention of felon disenfranchisement. An executive order ending Reconstruction-era disenfranchisement laws could add some 4 million disproportionately black, probably Democratic voters to the rolls. There’s a concrete change that’s smart–but given the media treatment of crime, politicians need real pressure, and now would be the time for civil rights groups to apply it to Obama. Similarly, this would be the time to pressure Obama to do more than he has pledged in response to the subprime crisis.

MoveOn.org polled its members before endorsing Obama, but it doesn’t seem to have demanded anything in exchange for that 3 million-strong endorsement. It’s hard to imagine James Dobson of Focus on the Family being so accommodating. The largest peace coalition, United for Peace and Justice, doesn’t endorse, in part for tax reasons but also for fear of splitting the organization. “It’s hard enough to keep a coalition together,” says national co-coordinator Leslie Cagan. PeaceAction endorsed Bill Clinton in 1992. “We learned our lesson then, and we haven’t endorsed since,” says director Kevin Martin. At the local level, too, reticence rules. PeaceAction Montgomery, for example, decided not to endorse peace candidate Donna Edwards in her primary race against Al Wynn (who voted for the war) because Wynn’s votes on Iraq had improved so markedly since his near-defeat by Edwards last time and the group didn’t want to be in his bad graces if he kept his seat. Thus do issue-groups reward their enemies and withhold on their friends. Dennis Kucinich and John Edwards have a lot more to say on that score.

When it comes to Iraq, it’s not only morally correct but strategically smart for progressive groups and Democratic voters to play hardball with these candidates. The “progress in Iraq” illusion may shatter soon, when the six-month cease-fire by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army expires. To run effectively against the GOP and John McCain (who has quipped that US troops might spend the next 100 years in Iraq), any Democrat will have to challenge the “surge is working” myth, not go along with it as the Democratic contenders and the Congressional leadership have largely done. Antiwar Democrats have to use their leverage to push for a new approach. And that’s just a start. This is the last chance before the general election horse race runs them to the curb, and they’ll be expected to fall in line and work for the candidate anyway. After that, progressives will need a movement to pressure any politician.

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