Casting for Leadership

Jerry Springer has taken himself out of the running for the US Senate. But we still have Warren Beatty thinking of running for President.

And why not Beatty in 2000? He played a populist senator in Bulworth, so he has about the same amount of experience as George Dubya Bush, who has portrayed a governor in Texas. Now Bush Lite is the D.C. pundits' odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination for the White House next year.

Bush can be counted upon to look after the interests of major corporations, as he has in the Lone Star State for the past five years. But the corporate titans who have staked his campaign with $37 million would not be upset with Democratic frontrunner Vice President Al Gore moving into the White House, since they've bought shares of him, too. And while former Senator Bill Bradley has made some populist sounds, he has been dealing mainly in platitudes and needs to clarify where he stands on issues of interest to workers, small businesses and family farmers. [For the facts on Bush's record in Texas, see The Texas Observer's "Bush Files" at (www.bushfiles.com). For equal opportunity bashing of potential presidential candidates, see the "Skeleton Closet" at (www.realchange.org).]

Beatty has talked with some of Jesse Jackson's advisors and acknowledged that he is considering a presidential race -- as a Democrat, as a Reformer or as an independent. TV producer Norman Lear, a friend of Beatty's, told the online magazine Salon that Beatty, who has been active in politics since Bobby Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1968, would not run with the expectation of getting elected. "It's really a question of could he help to push Gore and Bradley, the only two running in the center, could he push them a little to the left, where the heart is," Lear said.

Beatty might well catalyze a movement similar to that of the old Populists, the coalition of farmers and workers who in the late 1800s reached across regional and racial lines to rebel against the trusts -- the forerunner of today's multinational corporations -- the railroads and the bankers. The Populists controlled some state legislatures and elected a smattering of congressmen and senators in the 1890s before they were co-opted by the Democratic Party in 1896, but they laid the groundwork for the Progressive movement of the early 1900s, the trustbusting Republicans under Theodore Roosevelt, the Democratic reforms under Woodrow Wilson and eventually Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. As former Senator Gary Hart told Arianna Huffington in her column disclosing the potential Beatty candidacy, "What Beatty should say is: 'It's not about me running for president. It's about rallying people together who want to fundamentally change our country, and focus on the real ills of America in our gilded age.'"

"It took an actor," Bill Moyers told Huffington, "to dramatize for conservatives the ideas that changed politics in the early '80s. Perhaps another actor can help all Americans see how private money is overwhelming public life. If Warren can speak the truth to power on the stump as well as he did in Bulworth, he can change politics, too."

Corporate executives are bankrolling the Bush and Gore campaigns, they throw "soft money" at both major parties and they control the TV networks as well as the print media whose pundits have all but anointed Bush the presidential heir-apparent seven months before the first primary and 16 months before the election. Advocates of working people are strangely missing from the political debate. Populist Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone was all but ignored by the national media last year when he explored a presidential campaign for several months before he decided in December that he physically could not make the race. If it takes Warren "Bulworth" Beatty, running as a Democrat or a Reform candidate, to break through the blather, I'm all for him.

The conventional wisdom is that the Democrats have a chance of picking up a half-dozen seats to regain control of the House next year, but few of the D.C. pundits give the Democrats a serious chance of picking up the six Senate seats needed to regain a majority there. Of course these are the same pundits who the Republicans snuck up on in 1994, and this same group decided the Reform Party was finished in 1996, before most of them had even heard of Jesse Ventura.

The truth is that Democrats have no chance of regaining the Senate if they don't come up with challengers -- and progressives should not count on Bob Torricelli and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to recruit candidates who care about fair trade, campaign finance reform, consumer protection and the environment. The main criterion appears to be an ability to raise large amounts of money.

Up for election next year are 19 Republicans and 14 Democrats. Democrats have chances to pick up seats of retiring Republicans John Chafee in Rhode Island and Connie Mack of Florida -- and progressives ought to be in those races. They also need to keep the seats Democrats Richard Bryan of Nevada, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Daniel P. Moynihan of New York are giving up. We all know about Hillary Clinton's potential campaign against Rudolph Giuliani, but progressives should not overlook the other races that are coming up.

Progressive Democrats ought to mount campaigns against Republican incumbents in states that normally are competitive, challenging freshmen John Ashcroft in Missouri, Spencer Abraham in Michigan, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Bill Frist of Tennessee, Rod Grams of Minnesota and Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania.

Democrats should have a shot at Conrad Burns in Montana, Slade Gorton of Washington, James Jeffords of Vermont, William Roth in Delaware and Olympia Snowe of Maine. Those are all states where Democrats are -- or should be -- competitive.

Not to suggest that Orrin Hatch of Utah, Kay Bailey Hutchins of Texas, John Kyl of Arizona, Trent Lott of Mississippi, Richard Lugar of Indiana, and Craig Thomas of Wyoming ought to get a bye, but Democrats at this point don't appear to be capable of mounting serious campaigns in those states. If somebody wants to prove me wrong, more power to them. Literally.

Democrats up for re-election in 2000 include Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Dianne Feinstein of California, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Charles Robb of Virginia and Paul Sarbanes of Maryland.

You may find fault with some of those incumbent Democrats, but for me it is as simple as this: Tom Daschle or Trent Lott as Majority Leader. Richard Lugar or Tom Harkin as Agriculture Chair. Phil Gramm or Paul Sarbanes as Banking Chair. Jesse Helms or Joseph Biden as Foreign Relations Chair. James Jeffords or Ted Kennedy as Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chair. Orrin Hatch or Patrick Leahy as Judiciary Chair. The Democrats might disappoint you on occasion, but the Republicans will make your life miserable -- particularly if they gain the White House, keep the Senate and pack the courts.

The Democratic establishment in Washington appears to believe that the way back to majority status is to position the party just a little to the left of the Republicans and to run as the party of moderation. We think this is a mistake -- that it is better to give voters clear choices on issues such as saving Social Security, protecting American jobs with fair trade laws and providing universal health care with patients' choice of doctors.

We encourage progressives to explore alternative political movements such as the Greens, the Labor Party, the New Party and the Reform Party, but as a practical matter the best hopes of progressives for electoral wins in most parts of the country are still with the Democrats. It is time to reclaim the Democratic Party from the clutches of big business and restore at least a two-party system in the United States.
-- Jim Cullen

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