Strange Days

Who would have thunk it? House and Senate committees spend more than a year in partisan probes of President Bill Clinton's financial dealings when he was Governor of Arkansas more than a decade ago, a former business partner is convicted on fraud charges, and Bob Dole is the one forced out of office?

Yet even with surveys in May showing Clinton leading Dole by as many as 25 points (and perhaps more importantly the tide turning toward Democrats retaking Congress), it is unsettling to watch Democrats counting victory so early in the campaign season.

After all, the GOP still has Kenneth Starr with subpoena power and a grand jury and Paula Jones hoping to drag Clinton into a courtroom on a charge of sexual harassment. And even if Clinton wins re-election the Conventional Wisdom inside the Beltway of Washington, D.C., will credit his embrace of Republican themes.

Clinton has effectively coopted many of the Republicans' favorite subjects. He has given notice that an election year is not a time for leadership and he will not take an unpopular stance that could be raised as an election issue, even if what he perceives as the popular stance does not make sense. That is how we get arbitrary time limits for welfare benefits, repeal of a gas tax (at least until after the election) when he is trying to reduce the budget deficit and a bill that would allow states to ignore laws in other states, at least when it comes to honoring same-sex marriages. The Republicans - and some liberals - howl at his agility (I think they have other words for it) but he and his pollsters are working hard not to make him a principled ex-President.

* * *

Through all the hoopla, the only presidential candidate who is still talking about the problems of job insecurity and corporate downsizing, at least since Pat Buchanan quieted down in the Republican ranks, is our own columnist, Ralph Nader.

Nader, who does not fit the label of "politician," acknowledges that he is a different sort of candidate. Speaking on corporate crimes and corporate control of government at an environmental forum at the University of Texas in April, Nader referred to his low-key candidacy on the Green Party ballot almost as an afterthought, during a question-and-answer period.

"I'm a citizen advocate. I don't particularly like to be in formal politics. I like to be where the real action is," he said. "I think democracy is like a tree: Citizens are the roots and politicians are the branches and the twigs, so I like to be where the real action is.

Not that he has high hopes for a political insurgency this year. "This country is not ready for a grassroots political movement, no matter who is at the head of the ticket, or at the middle of the ticket. And it will never be ready unless millions of people are willing to spend a certain amount of time, week after week, honoring a citizen's duties," such as studying the issues, organizing and voting.

For the time being, he sees more lasting changes coming out of citizens' movements. "Politics is so bad that it shuts out citizens from being able to have a voice and participate in the governmental process. And companies are dominating that arena," he said.

But progressive individuals need to get involved in electoral politics, he continued. He agreed to be on the Green ballot, he said, to focus attention on global corporate power, to focus on the tools of democracy and to get more young people serious about politics. "I hope that ... people like Jim Hightower and others move into the electoral arena, even if they don't want to get elected, to basically show the two parties that people have somewhere to go, and there's an alternative and it's going to be a major political party someday."

Nader was the only person to testify at the March 26 Senate committee hearing in opposition to Clinton's nomination of Alan Greenspan for a third term as Federal Reserve chairman. Nader charged that the Fed's preoccupation with fighting "inflation ghosts" ignores the broader and specific mandate enacted in 1977 to "maintain the long-run growth of monetary and credit aggregates commensurate with the economy's long-run potential to increase production, so as to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates."

Nader also complained that the Fed lacks ongoing Congressional oversight, it operates in secrecy and that it reveals as little information as possible about its processes. This frequently confuses observers of the board's operations.

Nader urged the committee to defer action on Greenspan's nomination until it fully explored his administration of the Fed. He also urged a full explanation of Greenspan's role as a consultant to a number of savings and loan associations during the 1980s. During this period Greenspan battled Federal Home Loan Bank Board Chairman Ed Gray's efforts to curb the investment powers of those "thrifts." At least one S&Lfailed despite Greenspan's endorsement.

Nader's criticism of Greenspan went largely ignored and unreported after the hearing, but Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, a populist Democrat, may yet force a debate of the Fed's actions. Harkin is holding out for a full Senate debate on monetary policy and a recorded vote, rather than the planned voice vote, on a third-year term for Greenspan. As this issue went to press, Harkin was sticking to his guns.

* * *

Out in the Real World, one of the Democrats' brightest stars is Victor Morales, the high school civics teacher from tiny Crandall, Texas, who upset two congressmen in the Democratic primary to win the right to take on Sen. Phil Gramm in November. Morales won the nomination with little more than a white pickup truck and a disgust with the right-wing Republican's bashing of poor folk, immigrants and minorities. And Morales was willing to stop and introduce himself to every person he met in every small town he passed through.

The day after the runoff, Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, showed up in Austin with a jet and plans to raise big money for Morales and other Democrats. As R.G. Ratcliffe of the Houston Chronicle was quoted in the Progressive: "It just shows you how oblivious the Democratic power structure and people like Bob Kerrey are to what made Victor Morales a success in the first place."

Supporters of John Bryant, the progressive congressman whom Morales beat in the runoff, were pleasantly surprised to learn that Morales actually holds progressive positions on many issues, such as affirmative action, welfare reform and education. But his greatest strength among voters undoubtedly is that he is "one of us."

Give thanks that Morales is not about to trade in his pickup truck for a jet, although he has accepted a campaign manager and he reportedly has acquired a fax machine. After the runoff, Morales told John Nichols for the Progressive that he was dying to get back on the road. "I miss the peace and tranquillity of driving for an hour or two and then getting off the road and talking to the folks at the Stop-N-Go or the Exxon or the diner. I love it. I love talking to those people, hearing their voices. Those are the voices I want to carry with me to the Senate."

If democracy is to be restored in the United States, it will take candidates like Victor Morales. But more importantly, it will take a restoration of faith in voters who will look past the campaign bankrolls and the barrage of TV ads to study the candidates and elect the ones who have earned their votes.

And most importantly, it will take organization. In his eulogy for the late Sen. Ralph Yarborough in the Feb. 23 Texas Observer, Jim Hightower wrote that, after two unsuccessful runs for governor, Yarborough was able to be elected the People's Senator from Texas in 1957 and was re-elected twice despite the opposition of the established economic, political and media powers in the state only because "plain working families, dirt farmers, minorities, consumers, environmentalists, old folks and others who were being run over by that day's economic and political powers ... slowly and incrementally built a progressive movement precinct-by-precinct, county by county, throughout the '50s."

Hightower concluded, "We had a People's Senator because we had a people's movement. There is no short cut. We won't have another Yarborough until we do the tedious work of rebuilding the movement."

We can't wait for another Yarborough to rise up, and we can't expect the political establishment to furnish us one. We have to raise new Yarboroughs from the ground up. And that will take a lot of work and a lot more Victor Moraleses.

-- Jim Cullen

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 1995-1996 The Progressive Populist