Wayne O'Leary

Democrats in Transition

What a difference four years makes. At this time in 2000, Sen. Joe Lieberman was instructing the great democracy on the need for personal morality, clean living, and daily religious observance. Old Joe was our spiritual link to George Washington, who, it is said, could never tell a lie; he was also the Democratic party's symbolic rebuke to Bill Clinton, who, the Fox network regularly reminded us, could and did dissemble. Connecticut Joe may not have said much about the evils of economic laissez-faire or the need for populist renewal, but he was surely steeped in sanctimony. Four years ago, nothing more was required of a veep nominee in the party of Jackson.

Sen. John Edwards, the Kerry pick for a 2004 running mate, is an entirely different breed of cat. Where Lieberman was comfortable with the status quo, Edwards raises the shame of "two Americas," one for the rich and one for the rest. Where Lieberman was sympathetic to corporate concerns, Edwards demands corporate accountability. Where Lieberman slammed "protectionists" and defended the tax-cut avenue to prosperity, Edwards calls for fair trade and a rollback of financial giveaways to privileged special interests. The contrast between veep nominee past and veep nominee present shows, better than anything else, how far the Democrats have come over one brief election cycle in reclaiming their progressive roots.

The Edwards modus operandi has earned him predictable enemies, of course. His history of suing CEOs and their companies rather than coddling them has led to White House attempts to demonize him as the poster boy for America's trial lawyers, the group whose very existence is an affront to self-righteous corporate Republicans. The North Carolinian's identification as a symbol of the resistance to "tort reform" (a euphemism for restricting lawsuits against big business), as well as his populist stance against unlimited free trade, has raised the ire of the US Chamber of Commerce; its president and CEO, Thomas J. Donohue, asserts that the Edwards selection may force the staunchly Republican Chamber to abandon its "traditional neutrality" in presidential politics and endorse the GOP.

None of this is apt to hurt Edwards or, by extension, the Kerry-Edwards ticket. As the supporters of a prominent Democrat of the past, Grover Cleveland, were fond of saying, "We love him for the enemies he has made." And so far, John Edwards has made some really good enemies. If it comes to a contest between the aggrieved clients of trial lawyers and the corporations that abused them, put your money on the clients and their lawyers; if it's a choice between workers victimized by globalization and the companies that exported their jobs, pick the workers every time. The GOP appears oddly thrilled that Edwards has received the Kerry nod; an easy political target, they think. Excessively sanguine Bush operatives are about to confront the reality behind another popular adage: "Be careful what you wish for; you may just get it."

The tapping of John Edwards, who is smart, articulate, and politically passionate, a charismatic throwback to liberalism's glory years, seems almost too good to be true. But before progressive euphoria becomes all-enveloping, a few caveats are in order. First, inspiring as the Edwards choice is, it's a vice-presidential choice; the mill worker's son will not be heading the ticket, and it's the top of the ticket that is the potential problem.

Since 1992, when the Clinton forces captured the party and made it Republican lite, the Democrats have been mired in a soulless and futile centrism. Al Gore's rhetorically populist campaign of 2000 dragged them some distance back to their bedrock values, but his platform didn't match his rhetoric, and the Lieberman choice for vice president exposed the lingering influence of the corporate-friendly Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) over party policy and ideology. Though the selection of Edwards was a definite setback for DLC hopes, and though establishmentarians like Al Gore have embraced their inner populists and become DLC apostates, the organization's conservative members retain an inordinate amount of sway over Democratic fortunes. Throughout the extended post-primary season, current standard-bearer John Kerry has shown distressing signs of becoming their kind of guy. If so, he may prove to be merely a transitional figure on the road to a progressive future and not a major catalyst for change.

Despite inching to the left by embracing the populist Edwards, refusing to openly assail the Naderites, and offering mild critiques of the business system, Kerry continues to cling to the old centrist religion of the 1990s. His extended courtship of domestic conservative and foreign-affairs hardliner John McCain as a running mate (if genuine) suggests a candidate whose philosophical moorings are not firmly in place, and his network of policy advisors (pure Clintonian with few exceptions) creates the impression that a Kerry administration would essentially be a third Clinton term -- socially liberal and economically conservative. Moreover, the recent quadrennial party fest in Boston, orchestrated by Kerry forces, gave short shrift to progressives and their concerns. Antiwar spokesmen Dean and Kucinich were effectively marginalized, and the adopted platform, as well as the nominee's pronouncements, created precious little distance between Kerry and Bush on such key issues as Iraq, the Palestinian question, and free trade.

The Kerry approach offers some obvious improvements over Bush's right-wing agenda, but little yet to ignite the spirits of progressives and cause their hearts to soar. Assuming victory, labor will have a friend in the White House, and environmentalists will have a president they can relate to, but bold, expansive programs will be few and far between. Judging from the line-up of Kerry's economic gurus, the deficit hawks will rule and Wall Street will remain content. Expect a variety of minimalist domestic proposals, but no grand vision. In particular, expect no single-payer health-care initiative and no serious attempt to reverse corporate globalization.

Above all, John Kerry, like his hero JFK (and like the Presidents Bush), is a man whose interests tilt toward foreign policy; the son of a diplomat, it's what excites and moves him. Dealing with international terrorism is likely to be the focus of a Kerry administration, and building a progressive society at home almost an afterthought. Not even a committed populist holding down the number two slot will alter that fact.

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

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