Quit whining and
By Jim Cullen
On the surface, the election of 1996 was a story of two political worlds.
There is the Upper Midwest, where the election of Tim Johnson to the Senate
in South Dakota and the re-election of senators Tom Harkin in Iowa and Paul
Wellstone in Minnesota showed that progressive populism is alive and kicking.
Then there are places like Texas, where Republicans swept all statewide
races and gained seats in the Legislature. The GOP is poised to achieve
a majority in the Texas Senate for the first time since Reconstruction if
they win either of two special elections to fill vacancies this winter.
They could win both.
On the surface, progressives would seem to have little cause to celebrate.
President Bill Clinton, following the "triangulation" strategy
of his disgraced former adviser Dick Morris, had embraced a centrist agenda
that kept his distance from congressional Democrats and progressive constituencies.
Republicans held onto a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, although
the narrow margin of approximately 22 votes in the House is likely to blunt
the GOP bravado. The balance of power in the House is likely to lay with
moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats. Conservative Republicans
have a solid majority in the Senate, but they lack the numbers to break
a Democratic filibuster or override a veto.
After the election, Clinton said "our people voted for the ideas of
the vital American center." He expressed hope for bipartisan cooperation,
which usually is seen as cover for caving in to business interests. Republican
congressional leaders, of course, said they would be open to compromise
but didn't rule out continued investigations of Clinton and his White House
staff on a number of fronts.
Progressives found some cause for hope. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle
also saw a bright side in the election results, telling the New York Times,
"Republicans were able to retain a thin majority only by rejecting
their extreme agenda and working with Democrats to pass health care reform
and raise the minimum wage and help working families. If Republicans are
willing to continue that partnership of progress, Democrats are ready to
Don't count on it. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was selected this past
year by conservatives who were critical of former leader Bob Dole's compromises
with Democrats. The conservative bloc was reinforced with the election of
right-wingers replacing Democrats in Alabama, Arkansas and Nebraska and
replacing moderate Republicans in Colorado, Wyoming and both Kansas seats.
Also Sen.-elect Gordon Smith, a former conservative, was a battlefield convert
to moderation in Oregon. They will gravitate toward confrontation with Clinton.
The mobilization of organized labor and the infusion of $35 million in union
money was a key to the Democratic effort, as it helped reverse the momentum
of the Republican Revolution of 1994, drive House Speaker Newt Gingrich
underground, re-elect President Clinton and fight Congress practically to
Some Republicans ridiculed the union effort, saying labor leaders had gambled
$35 million of the rank-and-file's money on gaining a Democratic majority
and lost. The union leaders professed no regrets, noting that the campaign
increased the share of the vote cast by union households to 23%, from 14%
in 1992, according to surveys of voters leaving polling places. The union
vote went to Democrats, 63 to 37 percent, the polls showed. The union campaign
also put Republican incumbents on the defensive and forced them to distance
themselves from Gingrich and the Contract with America, which was linked
with shutting down the federal government twice.
"He is still the Speaker of the House, but I can say this: The Gingrich
Revolution is over," said Gerald McEntee, who headed the union campaign.
"I think everyone realizes we're at least a factor in American politics
now, and we've not been a factor for a long, long time."
The labor federation shook the growing feeling in Washington that it had
become irrelevant. The AFL-CIO has revived its organizing arm after years
of membership decline. And the Republicans have started discussing new ways
to smother the reborn union movement.
Some Democrats may have taken the first steps toward rehabilitating the
word "liberal," or at least the Republicans may have worn out
its usefulness as a bludgeon. Democrats prevailed in races where Republicans
tried to tar them as liberals: In addition to Harkin and Wellstone, Max
Baucus in Montana, Carl Levin in Michigan, John Kerry in Massachusetts frustrated
Republican attempts to unseat them. (Jay Rockefeller in West Virginia never
was seriously challenged.)
Meanwhile Rep. Tim Johnson unseated GOP Sen. Larry Pressler in South Dakota,
Rep. Bob Torricelli won Bill Bradley's old seat in New Jersey, Rep. Dick
Durbin won Paul Simon's old seat in Illinois and Rep. Jack Reed succeeded
Claiborne Pell in Rhode Island. In the South, Mary Landrieu succeeded J.
Bennett Johnston in Louisiana and Max Cleland succeeded Sam Nunn in Georgia.
They are expected to be more progressive than their predecessors, and their
victories tarnish the myth that the region was becoming a solid Republican
Progressive candidates who unseated Republicans in the U.S. House included
Ellen Tauscher in California's 10th District; Walter Capps in California's
22nd District; Jim Mahoney in Connecticutt's 5th District; Rod Blagojevich,
who regained Dan Rostenkowski's old 5th District seat in Chicago; and Leonard
Boswell, who won the 3rd District seat Republican Jim Ross Lightfoot vacated
to make a Senate race in Iowa.
Chris John won the runoff for Republican Jimmy Hayes' old 7th District seat
in southwestern Louisiana; Tom Allen in Maine's 1st District; James McGovern
in Massachusetts' 3rd District and John Tierney in Massachusetts' 6th District.;
Debbie Stabenow in Michigan's 8th District; William Pascrell in New Jersey's
8th District; Carolyn McCarthy in New York's 4th District; Bob Etheridge
in North Carolina's 2nd District; David Price in North Carolina's 4th District;
Ted Strickland in Ohio's 6th District and Dennis Kucinich in Ohio's 10th
District; Darlene Hooley in Oregon's 5th District; Adam Smith in Washington's
9th District; Ron Kind in Wisconsin's 3rd District; and Jay Johnson in Wisconsin's
In addition, Diana DeGette won Pat Schroeder's old 1st District seat in
Colorado and, in a closely watched race, Cynthia McKinney, the progressive
black freshman whose 4th district in Georgia was redrawn to be two-thirds
white by federal court order, beat a race-baiting Republican in the Atlanta
In one of the sweetest victories, Loretta Sanchez upset incumbent Republican
"B-1 Bob" Dornan, on the extreme edge of the right wing, in California's
At least 13 of the 70 Republican freshmen who sought re-election were defeated.
Twenty more R's squeaked by with 52% of the vote or less. Many of them reportedly
were helped late in the campaign by a massive infusion of "soft money"
by national Republicans to buy attack ads and get out the vote.
Paul Wellstone was the GOP's top Senate target, so he raised $7 million
and had 130,000 volunteers who battled Rudy Boschwitz and nearly $2 million
worth of national Republican attack ads. His grassroots campaign should
be studied by every progressive organizer in the country.
Linda Marson, Wellstone's campaign press secretary, said the national Republicans
started running ads attacking him in April. They pounced on Wellstone's
vote against the welfare repeal bill as proof that he was "embarrassingly
liberal." But Minnesota voters apparently respected him for standing
on principle. Wellstone defined being liberal as doing well for people,
fighting for his state and siding with ordinary citizens against special
"I just think people saw this as 'who's on my side.' That's what we
heard," Marson said. While they continued the negative ads Wellstone,
a former college professor, toured the state in the green school bus that
he rode to his upset win in 1990. He also participated in 13 debates.
The GOP finally gave up and pulled their ads off the air three weeks before
the election, finding that the ads had backfired. "They would do these
ads and people would pour in off the street and volunteer," Marson
At its height, Wellstone's campaign was averaging 12,000 get-out-the-vote
calls per hour. Canvassers knocked on doors in 80,000 precincts the weekend
before the election. That helped turn out nearly 70% of registered voters,
20 points above the national turnout.
Even with the impressive campaign treasury, Marson said a majority of Wellstone's
contributions were under $200. "He doesn't get big fat-cat contributions,"
she said. And he had no choice but to raise the money. "When you're
the number one target two years out from the election, you take it seriously."
Or you lose the election.
"Paul would never and hasn't compromised one bit," Marson said.
"If you stand for something it's a gamble, but that's what Paul believes
in. All we heard was 'I don't agree with you but by God you've got guts.'"
As he heads back for what Wellstone has said will be his final term, Marson
said, "Paul's going to do what he continues to think is the right thing
and he's going to keep going after corporate welfare and campaign finance
reform, fix the welfare reform bill and watch out for the things the Republicans
will try to slip through."
Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Pure Food Campaign in Little Marais,
Minnesota, said progressives should use Wellstone's campaign as a model
and get serious about running well-funded campaigns for political office.
"It takes a half million dollars to run a congressional race and it
costs several million dollars to run a Senate race and we're not going to
win until we face those facts," he said.
He noted that progressive organizations raised $1 billion from 12 million
donors last year for various causes. Essentially, the money was wasted,
"It's not that there isn't significant money available out there. The
problem is that we're wasting our resources," he said. "The Christian
Coalition raised $29 million and Greenpeace raised $35 million. Who had
better election results? ...
"If we're serious about campaign finance reform we've got to be serious
about winning elections first, because if you don't get in Congress and
if you don't get in the legislatures you don't get to change the laws. And
there are no short cuts in being able to deliver 51 percent of the votes.
If you're going to fight, you've got to fight to win. You need to do your
grassroots work with 21st century technology and we're still using 19th
and early 20th century techniques.
"When you deliver a progressive message in populist language as Wellstone
did, the people respond. A majority of people are ready to listen. We just
aren't talking their language."
In Lake County, where he lives near Lake Superior, northeast of Duluth,
Cummins was encouraged by a local race for county commissioner in which
an organic farmer, running on a program that advocated sustainable agriculture
and forestry, environmentally sensitive mining and encouragement of small
businesses in the local tourism industry, lost by only two votes.
"One thing is that the populist tradition never died out in the Upper
Midwest. Wellstone was connected to a live tradition of rural organizations
and social justice organizations in the cities but the successes of populist
candidates like Jim Hightower [who served two terms as Texas agriculture
commissioner] and Victor Morales [at least in the Democratic primary] show
that tradition is only half buried, even in Texas."
Cummins acknowledged that few populists can raise $7 million. "But
what is within range is a half million, which will put you in the ballpark
for a congressional election. We can raise that kind of money if we think
about winning instead of making a good showing."
He added that it does little good to talk about campaign finance reform
until a substantial number of reform-minded candidates are elected to Congress
and state legislatures.
"Obviously people want campaign finance reform but they don't want
higher taxes. The average person is already paying 37 percent of his or
her income in state, local and federal taxes. But we've got the lowest taxes
in the world on the rich and corporations. We need to levy higher taxes
on rich people and force the media to give free air time to candidates.
"Anti-government sentiment was what the people had in the election
and the only way to overcome it is old-fashioned populist straight-talking.
We need some blunt language and the attitude that we're going to turn things
"Remember that the Christian Coalition put just as many signs in Minnesota
as they did everywhere else. The difference is that Wellstone got out the
Cummins said he hopes the Greens, the New Party, the Natural Law Party and
the Labor Party figure out how to get their act together. He sees little
hope for the Reform Party as long as Ross Perot remains in control.
"The Democrats and Republicans look at third-party people as a joke
and we are a joke. We don't know the first thing about campaigning. We just
complain about the stacked deck," he said.
Cummins is inclined to support the Labor Party, which organized in June
and did not get involved in the election. "If you're talking third
party, the Labor Party is the only potential one with the mass membership
and resources to catalyze the sort of movement they're talking about."
he said, adding, "They have a realistic attitude about the Democrats:
Why reinvent the wheel if you can take it over."
In Texas, where Republicans swept statewide races, reduced the Democratic
majority in the state House and were poised to capture control of the state
Senate for the first time since Reconstruction, progressive activists were
Tom "Smitty" Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen,
was fighting a bad case of depression over the election results. "Going
from abhorrent to appalling isn't a place any of us wanted to be,"
he said. "Clinton moved toward the center and forgot the people who
helped elect him the first time. We all hoped he'd become a Democrat again
in his second term and move in a populist direction, but with the Republicans
in control in Congress it looks like he's going to be stymied."
"If we had a Republican president and a Republican Congress at least
we could have blamed them, but with a Democratic president and a Republican
... but now there's nobody to blame."
As he prepares for the next legislative session, Smith said he has little
choice but to appeal to Republicans as well as Democrats on specific issues
where they share common interests. "I'm always hopeful that progressive
Republicans will return to the original roots of their party," Smith
said, "but I don't see any indication that will happen."
Even in the 150-member Texas House, where Democrats kept a 10-seat majority,
Smith said Democrats are backing away from progressive principles. "The
few progressive Democrats are running scared," he said.
Smith echoed Cummins' call for a progressive populist vision. "We need
to quit playing in the system and create a new and stronger vision for the
future that's attractive to a broader base of people," he said. "Maybe
a third party is the answer, but certainly a third agenda ... that adheres
to the principles of reducing corporate control of government; assuring
access to government; the rights to basic services such as education and
health care; and to protect the environment. Then we need to hit the streets
and ask citizen groups to join in."
"... We've shown in the past that we have power when we work together
with others and we can change the outcomes of elections by choosing carefully
who to support."
He also said progressive advocates should try to deal with both parties.
"The mistake is assuming that we can rely on Democrats. We've seen
progressive Republicans in the past and if we have the right ideas and make
them clear we can work with them on issues like ethics, the environment
and issues concerning senior citizens and others who are vulnerable,"
he said. "They don't support the programs we have today, so we're going
to have to go back to the drawing board and develop proposals for the Legislature
that are clearer and not so identified with one party.
Smith hopes next time the Greens will have a better organized presidential
campaign, acknowledging that one of the difficulties was a candidate, Ralph
Nader, a well-known consumer advocate (and founder of Public Citizen) who
severely limited his own personal and financial role in the campaign.
"Green issues poll well among Texans and in the United States and had
a more effective run been made it would have gotten more votes in California,"
Smith said. Nader ended up with about 2.5% of the votes cast in California
and 1% of votes nationwide.
Brigid Shea, a former Austin City Council member who is Texas director of
Citizen Action in Austin, said the election showed how sophisticated are
the Republican voter identification and get-out-the-vote efforts. "They've
gained very specific voter lists from the Christian Coalition and they know
exactly what inflammatory language to use to hit the hot button," she
One mailing Shea received, which supported a Republican candidate for the
State Board of Education, made outrageous accusations that the Democratic
candidate was supporting a homosexual agenda for schools, she said. With
this election the religious right gained control of the State Board, which
sets policy for public schools and controls the distribution of textbooks.
"The Democrats can't even hold a candle to the Republicans when it
comes to campaign technology," Shea said. "The Democrats are only
now putting names on a database. The Democrats and the progressive community
are embarrassingly behind the times when it comes to just maintaining effective
voter lists and we're also less enthusiastic about our issues [than the
Christian Coalition and the Republicans].
"The Democrats have distanced themselves from obvious allies, such
as the environmentalists and the consumer activists, and that's where you
have people who are motivated and vigorous about getting out and working
for you. So people are hard-pressed to articulate issues that Democrats
really care about, except maybe in opposition to what the Republicans have
Democrats were unable to take advantage of the "serious backlash to
what the Republicans did in Congress," She said. "So many of the
polls and indicators said people were unhappy with the dismantling of environmental
laws and the cuts in social assistance to give tax breaks to the rich, yet
the results were somewhat contrary. That tells me that Republicans are out-organizing
the Democrats and are succeeding in spite of a fairly strong sentiment against
the Republican Congress. They were able to target and motivate voters."
The quixotic campaign of Victor Morales, the Dallas-area schoolteacher who
campaigned around Texas in his white pickup truck, ran up against the relentless
money machine of Phil Gramm, who outspent Morales more than 10 to 1 and
beat him by 55 to 44 percent.
Morales frustrated Democrats as he stubbornly refused an early debate offered
by Gramm and Morales never really addressed substantive issues, but he raised
nearly $750,000 through Oct. 16. That would be a fair amount in a congressional
race but a drop in the bucket for a state with 20 media markets.
Although Morales had widespread support (any opponent of Phil Gramm will
have that) he never really developed a statewide campaign organization and
he was only able to afford a couple weeks of TV ads. Meanwhile Texans were
subjected to countless scenes of a soft and cuddly Phil Gramm who had raised
$10.6 million and had $1.2 million banked in October.
Democratic efforts to turn out the vote were mixed: Texas' turnout of 58%
was the lowest in a statewide election since1970. The Southwest Voter Research
Institute of San Antonio, which surveyed 30 Hispanic precincts, found the
Mexican-Texan turnout increased to 59.5% on election day and estimated another
5-10% voted early. But a University of Houston survey of urban precincts
in Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth found Latino turnout
was down 24% from 1992. Black turnout was down 14% and blue-collar whites
was down 28%. All three groups voted Democratic. When they voted.
"The Wellstone campaign showed what can happen when a progressive campaign
is organized and has the technology to compete," Shea said. "Wellstone
had 130,000 volunteers in a state that's smaller than Texas and where it's
really cold. What did Victor Morales have?"
Wellstone's campaign showed that, if anything, the role of a grassroots
organization is increasing in the face of high-dollar campaigns. "If
you only try to reach people through TV and direct mail, there's a disconnect,
and I heard that time and time again from Democrats this year, that 'I don't
sense any contact with the party or the candidates'
"Part of the strength of the Republicans is that they have made this
unholy alliance with the Christian Coalition and they have access to an
automatic army of people who really care about their issues. I don't sense
that our side feels passionately about electing Democrats so that we can
(fill in the blank)."
And the Republicans always will have access to more money. That was seen
in cash infusions of hundreds of thousands of dollars for Republicans in
the last few weeks of the campaigns. Democrats could not keep up.
Cecile Richards, director of the Texas Freedom Alliance, which worked with
moderate churches to counteract the Christian Coalition's right-wing agenda
could not spot a silver lining as the religious right gained working control
of the State Board of Education. "I guess we could have gotten beaten
worse, but I don't know how," she said. "My assessment is that
we're in a Republican state now and we will be in one for the foreseeable
future. ... But we need to quit whining and get beyond the finger pointing.
It's time we begin to organize for our own selves. We've got plenty to do."
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