Start Your Engines

It's bad enough that President Clinton did not press the Republican congressional leadership to include health coverage for all uninsured children as part of the budget deal. But then, when senators Orrin Hatch and Edward Kennedy tried to marshal bipartisan support to attach their children's health care bill to the budget reconciliation, Clinton sent his minions to persuade Democrats to vote against the amendment.

The Hatch-Kennedy amendment was defeated on a 55-45 vote, with eight Democrats voting to kill it. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott had called the amendment a deal buster, and it probably would have made the budget more difficult to pass, with its 43-cent-a-pack levy on cigarette smokers. But the participation of the Clinton White House in smothering this initiative surely must remove all hope that the administration will return to a progressive course in the next four years, much less a populist one.

The budget begrudges some good points, such as tax breaks for families with minor children and college students, funding for Head Start, subsidized housing and restoration of disability and Medicaid benefits for legal immigrants, but what the headlines giveth the small print taketh away. For example, while the budget deal grants $15 million that is supposed to provide health insurance for almost half of the nation's uninsured children, it takes away a similar amount from Medicaid payments to charity hospitals and increases Medicare premiums paid by the elderly. The wealthy, however, will get their long-sought cuts in the capital gains tax and higher exemptions from the inheritance tax. When it comes to choosing between Wall Street and Main Street, Clinton repeatedly has bowed to the big-dollar boys. The poor folks must settle for gestures and scraps.

At least House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt rose to speak against the budget, which, he pointed out, again enriches the wealthy at the expense of the poor, the young and the helpless. We reprint his speech on page 6. If it was the first shot of the 2000 campaign, marking Gephardt in opposition not only to the House Majority but also to the White House, well, it is about time. After all, Clinton has installed the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which put American workers at the mercy of multinational corporations; then he botched an attempt at health-care reform; he apologized for the modest tax increase on wealthy people that was part of the 1993 budget deal; he renominated Alan Greenspan as Federal Reserve Board chairman to pursue a fiscal policy of low wages; he signed the welfare repeal act to force more people onto the job market, further depressing wages; and now he has signed off on a budget deal that grants more tax breaks to the wealthy, and he won't even hold out for a provision that taxes smokers to provide health insurance for children. Vice President Al Gore is in no position to voice his criticism even if he disagreed with these "New Democratic" policies -- and there is no evidence that he does.

Given this view of "New Democratic" policies, it is appropriate that many New Mexico progressive Democrats opted for Green candidate Carol Miller in the May 13 special election for the seat Bill Richardson gave up to become ambassador to the United Nations. Miller's 17 percent of the vote -- the best finish ever by a Green in a federal election -- threw the race to the Republican in a district that normally votes solidly Democratic. But Miller was having no talk of being a "spoiler."

"The spoilers are the people who were afraid to vote for the best candidate," she told the Santa Fe New Mexican on election night. Democratic officials had put forward Eric Serna, the state corporation commissioner, who ran an undistinguished, if expensive, campaign as a moderate. Organized labor and environmental groups dutifully lined up behind the Democratic anointee, but enough of the rank and file turned Green to let Republican Bill Redmond win with 43 percent.

You would think New Mexico Democrats would have learned something from the 1994 race for governor, when Green candidate Robert Mondragon polled 11 percent of the vote. That was enough to tip the race to Republican Gary Johnson over moderate Democrat Bruce King. This special election sent one more Republican to Congress for a year and a half. That will not upset the balance of power. But Democrats had better find a way to work with the Greens, or at least find a more progressive candidate to run in 1998, when Miller, a health-care worker, says she will run again.

Progressives don't want to be spoilers, but they hardly can be blamed for refusing to vote for Democrats who turn their backs on progressive interests. Unfortunately, neither the Greens nor any other alternative party is currently in a position to win a congressional race. Progressives must decide first if they can take back the Democratic Party and return it to its progressive populist roots. The 1998 elections could provide a good test. If Dick Gephardt wants to be a progressive populist standard-bearer, his speech opposing the Republicrat budget deal is a good start. He and Minority Whip David Bonior also should fight further expansion of "free trade" unless strong labor and environmental standards are in place. And advocating public financing for congressional campaigns would go a long way toward making the party accountable to the people, not corporations.

Those who have given up on the Democrats should decide which of the alternative parties provides the best route to electoral power. One way or the other, progressives need to start winning congressional races, not just spoiling them.

According to Ballot Access News, the Reform Party, which grew from Ross Perot's 1994 and 1998 runs for president, is already qualified for 31 state ballots for the 1998 election. The Libertarian Party is on 22 state ballots, the Natural Law and the Taxpayers' parties are on nine state ballots and the Greens are on eight state ballots.

Ideally, the Greens would be able to figure out a way to cooperate with the Reformists. However, there is a struggle over the direction of the Reform Party between Perot loyalists who want to maintain top-down control over the party and representatives of at least 10 states, allied with former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm, who favor opening up the party as a participatory democracy with grassroots control.

The Dallas-based Perot loyalists want to focus attention on key issues and are not interested in running candidates for Congress or local office while the dissidents, who have formed the National Reform Party Steering Committee, want to leave those decisions up to the state parties. [For information on the democratic Reformists, contact Ralph Copeland at (804) 288-1100.]

In New Jersey, five alternative parties have formed a "Council of Alternative Political Parties" to work together on common problems such as ballot access. The council, including the Greens, Natural Law, New Jersey Conservative, Libertarian and the US Taxpayers parties, have joined in a federal lawsuit against the New Jersey Secretary of State to force a constructive change in NJ's stifling ballot access requirements. The council is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. "If alternative parties can work together on common problems, they can get REAL changes done," said spokesman Albert Larotonda. For information, call 908-741-2129.

As Dick J. Reavis notes in his essay on the Patriot movement on page 10, it has been a while since working-class whites felt comfortable with liberals. It is long past time that rift was repaired. Just to make it clear: We are not fans of Louis Beam, the Ku Klux Klan, the Christian Identity Movement, the Patriots or other militias, but we agree with Reavis that progressive populists have a lot of complaints in common with those groups and others on what is characterized as the "hard right."

For several years Joel Dyer, editor of Boulder Weekly, has been tracking the movement of farmers forced off the land and into the anti-government movement. He recently wrote, "There is one question I always ask the people I meet in the anti-government movement: 'What was it that finally made you stop and say, "this isn't right, I've got to do something about it?"' The answers they've given are varied, yet in one sense the same.

"'They took my farm.' 'The IRS took everything I owned.' 'Environmentalists wouldn't let me run my cows cause some damn little sparrow they said was endangered lived on my place.' 'They were going to put me in jail because I didn't have the money to pay my tickets.' 'They took away my kids because I can't pay my child support. I only make five bucks an hour. How can I pay child support?'

"Different answers, one theme. Simply put, those who can't financially afford to live in our system are taking up arms. The economic gap between rich and poor can no longer be bridged by our dwindling middle class. We have once again, as at other times in our history, reached a turning point.

We can watch these people turn to despair and violence or we can give them a political alternative that shows how they share interests with environmentalists, minorities, small businesses and even the hated, hapless liberals. If it is asking too much of the Greens (or the New Party, the Labor Party, the Socialist Party or whatever party) to make a connection with working-class whites, then they will have to settle for spoiling the Democrats' chances.

Good words needed

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-- Jim Cullen

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