Whither the Democrats?

jacdon at earthlink.net jacdon at earthlink.net
Fri Nov 22 17:17:30 MST 2002

The following article appears in the Nov. 21, 2002, email edition of the
Mid-Hudson Activist Newsletter, published in New Paltz, N.Y., by the
Mid-Hudson National People's Campaign/IAC via jacdon at earthlink.net.

By Jack A. Smith

After a dozen years of steadily moving to the political center of
American politics, virtually eliminating its left wing in the process,
the Democratic Party has succeeded in losing control of all three
branches of the U.S. government -- the executive, the judicial and now
the legislative.

Undoubtedly, the Bush administration's fiction that the United States is
"under attack" in the aftermath of Sept. 11 created support for
Republicans  in the mid-term elections Nov. 5 that was hardly earned by
their legislative record.  But by opportunistically wrapping themselves
in the red, white and blue bunting of patriotic support for many of
President Bush's policies, combined with the absence of a political
program to address the serious economic and social problems confronting
working people and the poor, the electorate punished the Democrats by
restoring control of the Senate to the Republicans and increasing their
existing majority in the House.

The lack of a serious choice between the two major parties again
resulted in an exceptionally low voter turnout of 39.3% of the
registered voters and about 32% of all voting-age adults.  Out of this
latter category, somewhat more than half voted for the Republicans and
several hundred thousand fewer voters selected Democrats.   The greatest
proportion of nonvoters were members of the working class, minorities
and the poor -- the very constituency that once conceived of the
Democratic Party as representing its interests. Young people distances
themselves from the voting booths in huge numbers.  Even so, most of the
Democrats who lost tended to support the Bush administration's war plans
and tax cuts for the rich.

Clearly the centrist policy guiding the Democrats since the Democratic
Leadership Council (DLC) assumed jurisdiction over the party's direction
is an important factor in its slumping fortunes today, regardless of the
two narrow victories that placed arch-centrist Bill Clinton in the White
House for eight years.   All it took was for the Republicans to adopt
centrist language, while putting forward right and far-right policies,
to erode the Democratic gains, even in the midst of a serious economic
downturn. The Democrats, by contrast, employ centrist language and put
forward centrist programs while pledging allegiance every morning to the
"wartime" Republican president. A left worth its name no longer exists
in the two-party system.

Though battered, the DLC is still influencing the Democratic course.
The day after the election debacle, the DLC announced "the party needs a
bigger, bolder, clearer agenda and message" but not  "by moving to the
left....  The majority of Americans are still moderates.... There is an
urgent need for Democrats to return to the task that occupied them
during much of the 1990s:  creating a message and agenda based on broad
values and policy goals rather than government programs, [an agenda]
aimed at building new majorities rather than tending to old

A week later, the DLC was arguing that "Democrats need to appeal to all
Americans, not just to narrow interests." Those "interests" presumably
refer to working people and the elderly in particular.  "The harsh
reality is that there are more conservatives than liberals in America,
and more moderates than either.... That's why moving left is
counterproductive.... Democrats need to get the big things right.  That
means national security and the economy.  Our nominee must convince
voters that he'll keep them safe.... Trimming the [Bush] tax cut makes
sense, but as part of a comprehensive Democratic alternative that
includes their own tax cuts...."

Finally, on Nov. 18, the DLC declared that "bending to the centrist
impulses of the national electorate isn't just important in presidential
elections;  it is also critical in the dwindling number of swing
districts that hold the key for any hopes of Democrats retaking Congress
this decade.  A sharp turn to the left would likely doom Democrats in
contests for control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue."

The DLC is evidently blaming congressional Democrats for not being
centrist enough, as though it wasn't the party's middle-of-the-road
politics in the recent election that already lost them "control of both
ends of Pennsylvania Avenue."

Clearly a "sharp turn to the left" -- meaning in the DLC's opportunist
framework a return to the compromised liberalism of a Johnson or a
Truman, though hardly a Roosevelt of the early New Deal -- is not in the
cards.  At issue is whether Democrats are prepared to assume the
semblance of an opposition party, articulating a politics that will tilt
somewhat toward the interests of workers, minorities, the elderly and
the poor.

It is probably too much to ask that the Democratic Party as a whole
entertain the notion of opposing Bush's "war on terrorism" -- a misnomer
for military aggression abroad, the constriction of civil liberties at
home, and the shoveling of tax revenues down the Pentagon's bottomless
pit of "defense" expenditures while pleading poverty when it comes to
financing social programs for the people.

Al Gore, a leading DLC voice with impeccable centrist leanings at the
time of his vice presidency and in the 2000 presidential campaign, is
the one key Democrat and contender for the top nomination who is at
least mumbling, though not yet shuffling,  in the direction of inching
"left."  He has been given lately to a certain populist rhetoric -- and
recently suggested he now supports universal healthcare -- but he will
drift wherever the opportune winds blow in the years leading up to the
2004 contest.

Democratic progressives have put a certain store in the election of
liberal San Francisco Rep. Nancy Pelosi as minority leader in the new
Congress.   Pelosi, who has represented one of the country's most
liberal congressional districts since 1987, is undoubtedly one of the
more "left" of the current crop of Democratic members of the House,
which means she is a trifle left of center in broader terms.  Liberals
point to the fact that she voted against the Homeland Security Act when
it first came before Congress in July  and that she voted against the
resolution granting President Bush war powers in October.

At the same time, however, the new Democratic leader voted with the 87
members of her party to support the final Homeland legislation Nov. 13.
"It was time to move on," she explained. "All the Democrats and
Republicans want homeland security," she declared, stating the obvious
while ignoring the 114 Democrats (including Mid-Hudson Rep. Maurice
Hinchey) who opposed the specific bill in question.

Four days later Pelosi went out of her way to stress that she would
support Bush if he decided to declare war against Iraq, even if he did
not obtain backing from the UN Security Council.  After describing Iraqi
leader Saddam Hussein as a "menace" to the United States, without
explaining her reasons for arriving as this absurd conclusion, Pelosi
announced "I will certainly support the action of the president" if he
utilizes -- evidently for any reason -- the very powers to launch a new
war on Iraq that she voted against.   This does not seem to differ
substantially from the centrist leadership displayed by her predecessor,
Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who resigned his post after the Democrats
lost the elections, in part to prepare for seeking his party's
presidential nomination.

Since her election to the leadership, Pelosi has repeatedly stressed her
moderation and desire to serve as a party unifier and consensus
builder.  On Nov. 13, she named conservative-centrist Rep. John M.
Spratt Jr. as assistant Democratic leader. Spratt is an important member
of the centrist New Democrat Coalition.  According to the DLC, he "is
very well equipped to remind Pelosi of the persistent weakness of
congressional Democrats on issues of national defense and managing the
federal budget." In other words, Pratt will help the Democrats become
even more like Republicans.

Most left analysts, while welcoming the advent of the first  woman
congressional leader, do not believe she -- or any others in the
Democratic leadership at this point -- are prepared to assume the
political stance required to measurably nudge the party to the left.
Nothing is ever certain in politics, of course, but it looks like more
war and fewer programs for the people over the next years.

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