An Agenda for Wayward Democrats

If, as Ralph Nader has been saying lately, the Democratic Party can't react more forcefully to the Enron scandal, it is a party without a future. Up to now, Democrats have simply joined congressional Republicans in holding public hearings that have been little more than occasions for political grandstanding. The spectacle of cynical recipients of Enron's largesse castigating the company, after enthusiastically enacting deregulation measures that provided it with ample opportunity to profiteer and falsify records, has not been edifying -- or reassuring.

The show-biz hearings mean nothing unless they lead to substantive legislative reforms. That may yet happen, but there are few signs of it so far. Democrats, like Republicans, seem more upset that they and their investor-constituents have lost money through collapsed Enron stock than anything else. We hear much concern about investor rights and trustworthy financial statements, but little about properly regulated energy markets and worker or consumer protections. The integrity of the stock market must be guaranteed at all costs; safeguarding the public from unscrupulous corporate economic practices, on the other hand, is almost an afterthought.

There are other issues on the table besides Enron that also require a stronger response from the more nominally progressive of our major parties. Regarding one of them, campaign finance reform, that response may be forthcoming. As this is written, some version of the Shays-Meehan/Mc-Cain-Feingold bills limiting the use of "soft money" appears likely to become law, mostly with Democratic votes. Attempts will be made to water down the end result, but something will emerge -- not what's truly needed, full public financing of campaigns, but something. It's hard to tell whether this represents a resurgence of the progressive spirit among congressional Democrats (80% of whom voted for the soft-money ban in the House), or if it's merely the Enron effect: fear of tainted money. Regardless, we'll take it.

The Enron dividend, regrettably, doesn't extend to tax policy, and here the Democrats have fallen down badly. After waging a 2000 presidential campaign on behalf of tax fairness and subsequently criticizing last year's wealth-biased Bush rate cuts (which they nevertheless voted for in significant numbers), Democratic politicians have lately been missing in action on the issue. They've rhetorically deplored the massive 2001 giveaway to top-bracket Americans, correctly pointing to its adverse impact on the budget surplus and on needed social programs; they've also accurately assessed its potential to exacerbate the current recession by stripping the government of revenue resources for non-deficit pump priming. But rhetoric is as far as they've gone, and talk is cheap.

Once again, it's been left to Ted Kennedy to remind the party of what it supposedly stands for, just as he did in the wake of the disastrous 1994 off-year election. Only Kennedy has been willing to back up liberal rhetoric with liberal action, calling for a legislative rollback of the worst excesses of the GOP raid on the Treasury. Under the Massachusetts senator's proposal, the estate tax, abolished in its entirety last year, would be reimposed on estates valued at over $4 million, thereby returning $130 billion to federal coffers over the next decade. In addition, Kennedy would postpone marginal rate cuts scheduled for the years after 2004, cuts benefiting only those families earning over $130,000 a year, an additional savings of $220 billion over ten years. If Democrats can't back this plan, which is economically sensible, morally justifiable, and politically defensible, they should join the other party.

There is one more emerging national issue Democrats need to address to reestablish themselves as a bona fide opposition party, and it won't be easy; it will require, in fact, that most elusive of Washington commodities, genuine political courage. George W. Bush, riding high in the polls, wants a wider war, and he'll have to be opposed. To this point, mainstream Democrats have been extremely loath to question the administration's foreign policy, an attitude typified by their last standard-bearer. In mid-February, former Vice President Al Gore, once more in the arena, pledged allegiance to "my commander in chief" and backed efforts to deal harshly, even preemptively, with Iraq and Iran, two-thirds of the so-called Axis of Evil. This servile approach can't go on; one war party is enough.

Democrats need to summon the intestinal fortitude to say what our concerned coalition allies in Europe have been saying, that the president's over-the-top State of the Union address called for biting off far more than he can chew. Name your favorite Third World theocracy or secular dictatorship, and George W. Bush and company want to attack it. This month, the Axis of Evil is Iraq, Iran, and North Korea; next month, it could be Libya, Somalia, and Syria. This is an administration high on hubris, buoyed up by its limited military success in Afghanistan -- limited because the job Bush set out to do on Sept. 12, with justifiably unanimous support, has not been completed in any real sense.

Osama bin Laden (remember him?) remains at large, along with an estimated two-thirds of the al-Qaeda leadership. Afghanistan, which we "liberated," appears on the verge of sinking back into antediluvian warlordism. But George the Younger, seemingly consumed by the need to compensate for his father's incomplete victory in the Persian Gulf War, is off to hunt bigger game. Bin Laden, until recently our surrogate Hitler, is about to be supplanted by Saddam Hussein, who will reprise the role he premiered a decade ago, with the leaders of Iraq and North Korea as supporting players, and understudy Muammar Qaddafi waiting in the wings.

The loyal opposition will have to be a little less loyal and a little more oppositional. They will have to realize they're dealing with a war-loving administration whose potential motto is "Quagmires R Us." The campaign against terrorism has, according to CBS News, cost $60 billion thus far; the president wants $48 billion more next year (the greatest increase in defense spending since 1981), but with his agenda, even that won't be nearly enough. The surplus is shrinking, the deficits are growing, the recession is lingering, and domestic needs are increasingly unmet. Meanwhile, the presidential smirk and strut are back, and the presidential chest is puffed out. It's past time for someone to pull in on the reins, and the logical wagon masters are in the Democratic party.

If Democrats can rouse themselves, then, there is a wide-ranging progressive agenda waiting to be addressed. Enron shows the need for a re-regulation of energy markets, an end to offshore tax havens, added protections for employee pension funds, and a revamping of financial and accounting practices. The times also demand that campaign-finance reform be made a reality and that last year's absurd tax cut for the wealthy be severely trimmed. And, finally, notwithstanding the difficulty, there needs to be a case made that combating terrorism does not mean authorizing a blank check for an endless global war.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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