During the 2000 presidential campaign Ralph Nader ridiculed those Democrats who objected to Nader's Green candidacy, which was bound to detract from Al Gore's, as "frightened liberals." A year and a half later, any progressive populist who isn't scared of what else George W. Bush's regime has planned just hasn't been paying attention.
Bush has ridden the wave of patriotism in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks to record levels in public opinion polls. His White House has taken full advantage of his war-inflated popularity to restrict civil liberties, dole out windfalls to favored industries, set up a "shadow government" by edict, run a war without consulting Congress and browbeat congressional Democrats who dare to quibble.
Now we learn that Bush has told military planners at the Pentagon to think outside the box on the use of nuclear weapons to settle conflicts as we head into an endless worldwide war to scatter terrorists and protect oil pipelines.
There is still a big difference between having Republicans in power and having Democrats in power. For example, Congress passed George W. Bush's $1.35 trillion tax break for the wealthy before Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont finally had his fill of the R's and mutinied, giving the D's control of the Senate. With Tom Daschle setting the agenda instead of Trent Lott, that tax bill would have been markedly different &emdash; witness the greatly tempered economic stimulus bill that finally passed in March, stripped of the lavish additional tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations.
Another difference between the R's and the D's is that, as this is written, reformed segregationist Charles Pickering's nomination for the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals is languishing in Pat Leahy's Judiciary Committee. If Orrin Hatch were still in charge, Pickering would already be in New Orleans, reversing rulings of the few Clinton appointees that got on the district bench in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, and the White House would be looking forward to filling the next couple Supreme Court openings.
Democrats joined the Republicans in passing the USA PATRIOT Act, an hysterical overreach in police power which someday will go down with the Alien and Sedition Act in legislative infamy. Judiciary Democrats managed to moderate some objectionable elements before sending it to the Senate floor. It still deserved to be defeated, but only Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., had the guts to vote against it. With any luck the Supreme Court will overturn its worst features before Bush gets a chance to add to the high court's rightward tilt.
Bankruptcy deform still has not gone to Bush. Given up as a slam dunk when Dubya took power, the draconian bill was drawn to order by the banking industry to crack down on debtors in anticipation of the upcoming recession. It shot through the House and a similar bill passed the Senate 83-15 when both chambers were controlled by the R's. It has been stuck in conference committee ever since the D's took over the Senate. Perhaps the demise of Enron and the high-tech bust caused some of the high-hats to renew their appreciation for the healing power of bankruptcy. Anyway, the bill ain't law yet.
Yes, too many congressional Democrats are willing to sell out workers, family farmers and small businesses for the interests of multinational corporations. But you still can count on the R's to go farther: The Bush administration repudiated the fair trade agreement that Clinton negotiated with Jordan in 2000, which provided for binding labor and environmental protections. Standing up for labor and the environment would set a bad precedent, Republicans complained.
Even when Bush acts to protect US steelmakers from foreign competition, his sympathies clearly lie with the industrialists. He chose not to bail out pension and health-care plans of retired steelworkers whose former employers unloaded those "legacy costs" in bankruptcy court.
Now Bush has declared that minimum-wage laws should not apply to welfare recipients who are working off their benefits. This not only keeps welfare recipients working at starvation wages; it also puts other working poor at a disadvantage when companies can hire welfare recipients to work for less.
Maybe we're damning the Democrats with faint praise. Perhaps they are just speed bumps for the Bush administration. Possibly they are hopelessly in hock to the corporate interests that finance their campaigns. If that is the case it is up to the rest of us to elect a better class of progressive Democratic candidates and reinforce their spines when it comes to taking on the business lobby.
In the meantime, if the Democrats regain control of the House this November, we will have in Dick Gephardt a speaker who at least is open to a populist point of view and Nancy Pelosi in line to become Democratic leader. Other progressive Democrats are ready to take over committee leadership. Then they can show Dubya how bipartisanship works.
We're not kicking the Greens. We don't subscribe to the blame game that Nader caused Gore's defeat. We think Nader energized Gore's campaign, causing him to adopt a more populist rhetoric &emdash; in fact Gore got half a million votes more than Bush nationwide, and media recounts show Gore actually got more votes in Florida than Bush. (Of course, that doesn't satisfy some Democratic partisans, who would rather blame Nader than Gore and the hacks who gave up the fight in Florida.) We still defend the right of Greens, Libertarians, Reformers, Natural Laws or others to field alternative candidates. But we think the efforts (and votes) of progressives would be more effectively spent on returning the Democratic Party to its populist roots.
If Greens or other progressives can't win a Democratic primary, they surely cannot hope to win a general election. All they can hope to do in the short term is replace a Democrat who is 30 to 45% progressive with a Republican who is 0 to 5% progressive. And in a short term the R's can take away the long term. They got a quick start in the few months they controlled the White House and Congress, and you can be sure groups like the Heritage Foundation are working 24/7 to take advantage of the next opportunity.
In the meantime, press for adoption of instant runoff voting, which would allow voters to vote for their top two choices in a multi-candidate race. That way alternative candidates would not be "spoilers" and voters could register their choices without risking the worst of two evils. Such a voting plan was adopted March 5 in San Francisco, and 49 towns and cities in Vermont endorsed instant runoffs in state elections.
Proportional representation also would help alternative parties nationally &emdash; and Democrats and Republicans would benefit in various parts of the country where they are gerrymandered out of power. US Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., sponsored HR 3068 to allow states to use proportional voting system for multiseat congressional districts.
Ultimately, public financing of state and federal elections is needed to level the playing field for candidates who want to represent working people. James Carville, who often must subordinate his populist ideals for the necessity of defeating Republicans, recently told Salon.com's Joan Walsh, "One of Clinton's problems was, the interest groups don't care about the working poor. The Republicans don't care about the working poor &emdash; they don't know any. The op-ed writers don't care about the working poor. The editorial writers don't care about the working poor. The talking heads don't care about the working poor. Now the disabled have a lobby in Washington, the charities do, the welfare people &emdash; they all have lobbyists. The folks who wanted to get rid of the capital gains and the estate tax certainly had a lobby. But Clinton's entire constituency &emdash; well, there are about 30 people in Washington who care about them."
Democrats in Congress must show they care about working people. They should start by challenging Bush's domestic program, his obsessive secrecy and his power grabs.
United we stand; divided we fall. Not so long ago the D's stood up for working people, family farmers and small businesses. They can again, but only if we make it so. &emdash; JMC