Wayne O’Leary

The New Bourbons

Once upon a time in America, the late-19th century to be precise, there was a class of politicians known as Bourbons. These were conservative Democrats who, in the Gilded Age, alternated in power with the dominant Republicans. Most famous of the Bourbons was Grover Cleveland, governor of New York and two-term president of the US from 1885 to 1889 and again from 1893 to 1897.

Cleveland clung to a few eternal verities: low tariffs and hard money were good, labor unions and populists were bad. Until displaced by William Jennings Bryan and his agrarian revolt in 1896, he was the face of the Democratic Party. He kept it on the laissez-faire straight and narrow, and while the robber barons of the era preferred his Republican rivals, they judged him to be just fine on the issues that counted.

A century later, there are new Bourbons on the scene, and their leader is also from New York. Hillary Rodham Clinton has emerged as the Democratic Party’s spiritual successor to Grover Cleveland. Her husband Bill actually preceded her in the role during the ’90s, and he’s still the folksy Rasputin behind the throne, but Hillary is Bourbonism’s rejuvenated face of the present.

In case anyone is in doubt about where the Democratic Party will head under Clinton, should she attain the presidency (and America’s establishment elite is trying to make it happen), here’s Hillary speaking to the Washington Post in mid-October: “I intend to win in November 2008, and then I intend to build a centrist coalition in the country that is like what I remember when I was growing up.” And as The Nation reminded its readers recently, the New York senator grew up as a Goldwater girl in a staunchly Republican family.

Centrism has lately been cast as a governing ideal that will liberate the nation from partisan politics as usual — Democratic liberalism versus Republican conservatism. In fact, centrism is politics as usual, the kind of politics that dismisses popular impulses and provides vested special interests (largely corporate) with what they want, especially on economic issues. In a Clinton administration, it will mean an alliance between moderate-to-conservative Democrats and country-club Republicans more interested in advancing a corporate agenda than a Christian-conservative social agenda. By any measure, the result will be a slightly right-of-center politics.

The precedent was set by Bill Clinton a decade or more ago, when the original centrist Clinton used Republican support to marginalize the left-leaning elements of his own party and enact NAFTA, a punitive welfare reform, a balanced budget, and the deregulation of the telecommunications and banking industries. The same can be expected under Hillary Clinton, who has said on numerous occasions that she supported her husband’s fiscal conservatism and domestic initiatives. She has made small gestures toward the left, suggesting for instance that free trade might have been carried a tad too far. But talk is cheap in politics, and the record, not the rhetoric, is what counts.

Hints of the Clinton domestic priorities have been seeping out for several months, although the senator’s Bushlike campaign values secrecy above all else. On health insurance, a market-oriented plan was trotted out at the last moment under pressure from the other campaigns; it rejected a government program and opted for preserving insurance-industry primacy and imposing individual mandates. On Social Security financing, removal of the FICA tax cap on higher incomes was dismissed in favor of the classic fallback position, a “bipartisan” study commission. On the pension crisis, saving defined-benefit pensions was spurned in order to back tax breaks for employer-friendly 401(k) retirement accounts. On social-services spending, support for public agencies took a back seat to the “faith-based” approach favored by privatizers.

At all times, fiscal discipline and budget balance have been set forth as the primary economic duties of government, a stance straight out of corporate Democrat Robert Rubin’s Wall Street playbook. A Clinton administration will clearly restrain spending before it will press for new programs. That’s a course anti-Bourbon John Edwards, for one, has pointedly said he will not follow in the case of health care.

On the foreign-policy front, Clinton will be hawkish — not as hawkish as the Bush Republicans, but more so than any other Democratic alternative. The refusal to disavow her vote in favor of the resolution permitting the invasion of Iraq is well known; it’s reinforced by the senator’s reluctance since 2001 to criticize the Bush Middle-East strategy, only its tactical application. At present, Hillary will not explicitly reject torture as a form of wartime interrogation. She will not bar maintaining troops in Iraq indefinitely for offensive operations, even after withdrawal starts, and won’t commit to a withdrawal schedule. She, alone among the Democratic candidates, voted for the Kyl-Lieberman Senate resolution condemning Iran and opening the door for military action against its “terrorists.” And her uncritical support of Israel, no matter what the consequences, is pure neocon.

Small wonder that many Republicans, discouraged by the Bush incompetence, find the Clinton candidacy a reasonable place to go in 2008. Hillary’s fans include right-of-center pundits William Kristol and David Brooks, and a host of GOP-oriented corporate CEOs. The candidate herself has encouraged this, courting Republican voters as someone who shares their red-state values. No Democrat has been more avid about publicly advocating religious observance, for example, and none has more shamelessly pandered to conservative evangelicals.

There’s more in question here than mere positioning and posturing, however. The issue of honesty and believability is front and center when it comes to the Clintons. David Geffen, a prominent former Clinton supporter who now backs Obama, articulated it early in this campaign year, saying of Bill and Hillary, “Everybody in politics lies, but they do it with such ease, it’s troubling.” Geffen is right. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton turned his back on labor with NAFTA, abandoned anti-poverty advocates over welfare reform and deserted consumer crusaders on telecom and banking deregulation; all three groups had supported him. And Hillary has already raised eyebrows with her continuation of the ethically challenged Clinton pattern of fundraising.

Trust is a precious commodity in politics. Grover Cleveland, wrong-headed on so many things, was at least personally honest. The same cannot be said for today’s practitioners of modern Bourbonism, who have few, if any, political scruples.

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

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2007

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2007 The Progressive Populist.