More 'Populist Lite'

Bill Clinton missed his chance to chart a populist path for his last two years in office with his State of the Union speech. In the face of the Republican majority that is trying to remove him from office on trumped-up impeachment charges, Clinton could have given progressives solid reasons to care whether Democratic senators actually come up with 34 votes to save his hide. Instead he unveiled a "populist lite" program that puts a portion of Social Security revenue in the stock market, offers tax credits to supplement Medicare, puts more police on the streets, and sends more money to the Pentagon. He also wants to invest in public schools and protect the environment. It is a measure of how much conservative Republicans, the pro-business Democratic Leadership Council and the corporate media have controlled political debate that Clinton's proposals--which could have been advanced by Dick Nixon or Jerry Ford--are labeled by commentators as a bold, populist plan.

A bold, populist plan would have been to federalize the nation's health care with universal health insurance so that no Americans fear that they don't have enough money to see a doctor or get needed surgery or take care of their ailing parents. We didn't hear that in Clinton's speech.

Instead we got proposals such as Clinton's long-term care initiative. As Robert Kuttner noted, "This program, ostensibly aimed at the financially and emotionally devastating medical needs of millions of frail and disabled Americans and their families, bore all of the marks of Clinton's signature--the cynicism, the tokenism, the cheap symbolic politics.

"The sums proposed are a pittance compared with the need. The maximum aid would be $1,000 a year, compared with tens of thousands of dollars in typical costs of long-term care.

"The form is entirely Republican--a tax credit rather than social insurance," Kuttner noted. He added that about 40% of America's elderly have incomes too low to pay any federal income taxes; so the neediest would get no benefit from the proposed tax credit.

Clinton's proposal comes on the heels of the Balanced Budget Act that the president signed. It the Medicare budget by more than $20 billion a year, or 20 times the benefit of the new proposal.

Clinton also is awaiting a Medicare advisory commission report, due March 1, on how to prepare for the looming retirement of the baby-boom generation. Conservatives on the panel, including Democrat John Breaux of Louisiana and Republican Bill Thomas of California, want to transform Medicare from guaranteed insurance, with choice of doctor and hospital, into a voucher program, where senior citizens could buy insurance from private companies and HMOs. The plan also would increase the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.

It's not too soon to start calling your members of Congress to stop the privatization of Medicare insurance. The U.S. Capitol switchboard number is 202-224-3121. If anything, Congress should extend Medicare coverage to people 55 or older.

The federal government is expected to see a surplus of at least $700 billion over the next 10 years, even without the Social Security surplus, according to Congressional Budget Office forecasts. Republicans already are planning to use the revenue windfall to cut taxes, and Clinton plans his incremental spending programs. We think the money could be put to better use as a down payment toward providing health care for the 43.4 million Americans who cannot afford insurance. That number has increased 10 million from 1989 and it's a disgrace for the world's leading industrial nation in a sustained economic "boom" that has enriched Wall Street at the expense of factory line workers.

The uninsured are mainly America's working poor--85% are in families with workers. Also, 61% of the uninsured workers are employed by businesses that have less than 100 workers or are self-employed, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, as cited by the Chicago Tribune. More workers are expected to be priced out of health care by double-digit increases in premiums this year.

The solution, of course, is for the federal government to provide universal health coverage similar to Canada's (where health expenditures were 9.6% of the Canadian gross national product in 1995, compared with 14.2% in the U.S.).

Approximately $988 billion was spent on health care in the United States in 1995, the last year for which data were available. Public sources already pay for $456.4 billion. Insurance and other private sources accounted for the remaining $532.1 billion. We think that workers as well as small businesses would be better off and the money would be more efficiently used if it were channeled through the federal government rather than insurance companies.

We were sorely disappointed when Sen. Paul Wellstone, the progressive populist Democrat from Minnesota, announced on January 4 that he was unable to proceed with his plans for a presidential campaign for the year 2000. Back problems have plagued Wellstone since his wrestling days at the University of North Carolina and made such a rigorous national campaign impossible, Wellstone said, despite his apparent desire to carry the banner of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party in the race with President Clinton's heir-apparent, Al Gore.

We hope that another progressive populist of national stature will take up the banner. As we explained last month, campaign organizations must be in the field this summer to have any hope of an impact in the primaries of the winter of 2000, but if they can establish a broad-based campaign they can take advantage of matching funds to get their message out.

Two of our columnists could make the race: Jesse Jackson, is a potential populist candidate with a proven base of voters and he certainly has an appeal among the dispossessed Americans who have been left out of the economic boom of the 1990s. Ralph Nader might be persuaded to make another run as a Green candidate. However we would still like to see a candidate who has shown the ability to project a progressive agenda and win a statewide general election.

One of our favorites, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, ran a populist campaign for president in 1988 until lack of funds forced him to withdraw in the early spring. Unfortunately Harkin's presence in the coming race might give Gore another excuse to duck the Iowa caucuses, as he did in 1984 when he pronounced Iowa caucusgoers "too liberal." With the front-loading of the New York and California primaries in March 2000 we can't afford to give the front-runner or the national media any excuse to discount the smaller "retail" states such as Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters actually have a chance to meet candidates.

That brings us to Senator Russell Feingold, who just won re-election to a second term from Wisconsin with a courageous campaign that repudiated out-of-state PACs, "soft money" and unaccountable attack ads. I don't know if Feingold would relish spending another year and a half campaigning for president, but what better way is there to capitalize on the swelling public disgust over the influence of money in elections and keep the spotlight on campaign finance reform and other progressive causes?

To urge Feingold to make the race, contact his office, 716 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, D.C. 20510; phone 202-224-5323; or email russell_feingold@feingold.senate.gov.

One more thing: While we wish Jesse Ventura every success as Governor of Minnesota, we think he should follow through on his post-election promise to stick to that job and not entertain thoughts of a presidential race--even if Hulk Hogan goads him. However, the Reform Party needs to get serious about fielding good candidates in state races and looking past Ross Perot for presidential candidates who can carry the banner in 2000. (No, not Hulk Hogan.)

-- Jim Cullen

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