Belaboring the Obvious

Friday, November 10, 2006

Oh, the times, they are a-changin'....

Two of the lessons of this election--which establishment Democrats are trying desperately to ignore--is that good candidates can win, even when they've been thoroughly outspent by their Republican opponents, and that mediocre candidates echoing Republican "strong on defense" issues will lose, even after lavish funding by the Dem powers that be. Those principles are best illustrated by the races involving Tammy Duckworth and Kirsten Gillibrand.

In the first instance, Rahm Emanuel kicked the progressive candidate, Christine Cegelis, to the curb in favor of Duckworth (who was not indigenous to the district), pumping large amounts of money into a Dem primary that probably should have been left alone to see the results. The truly odd thing about this is that Cegelis had already demonstrated her campaign chops--she'd run against Henry Hyde in 2004--and garnered 44% of the vote against him after being outspent four to one. In the 2006 election, Cegelis would have been up against not Hyde, but, rather, Peter Roskam, an Illinois state senator who was on record as being a strong supporter of Bush's Iraq

policies (not to mention being, generally, a right-wing nutcase), had continually portrayed his position on Social Security as protective of it while previously being on record as favoring partial privatization, and had the additional negative of once being a legislative aide in Tom DeLay's office. Cegelis had been on record as against the Iraq war before it started, had strong positions on workers' rights, minimum wage, thought CAFTA a bad idea and was in favor of single-payer health insurance. In other words, she was diametrically opposite in her views to the Bush Republican Roskam.

Duckworth, on the other hand, was less distinguishable from Roskam regarding her views on the war--she didn't think sudden withdrawal was a good idea, because it might induce a civil war, generally sided with the McCain immigration proposals and emphasized veterans' rights throughout her campaign (nothing wrong with that, and it's appropriate, given her status as a disabled veteran, but it wasn't one of the pressing issues of the day for most of the electorate). Neither did Duckworth say anything particularly untoward with regard to DLC interests. Many will wonder if the RNC-sponsored robocall campaign against her worked--she lost by two points to Roskam, even though well up in the polls in the week before the election. But, the major point is that Emanuel, through the DCCC, pumped $3 million into her campaign and she still lost. We'll never know if a similar amount of money invested in Christine Cegelis' campaign would have created different results.

At the other end of the spectrum, there's Kirsten Gillibrand, who was up against a highly-conservative four-term Republican, John Sweeney, running in a predominantly rural and suburban Republican-leaning district. Gillibrand had plenty of policy-making experience, especially in the area of low-income housing, women's rights and served on the advisory board of the Brennan Center for Justice.

She was opposed to Social Security privatization, and on most issues, ran strongly counter to Sweeney's positions, calling for planning to remove troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, favoring an increase in CAFE standards to promote fuel conservation and finding ways to shore up the US manufacturing base through alternative energy programs, wanted to provide some tuition relief through tax credits to middle Americans, made reform of the alternative minimum tax and middle-class tax relief an issue, favored minimum wage hikes, blasted Sweeney on his positions on NCLB and offered reforms to that program, was in favor of affordable health care for all and wanted substantive ethical reform in Congress.

On almost every policy issue of concern to voters in her district, she differed strongly from her opponent. Her support came largely through smaller donations, Howard Dean's 50-state initiative through the DNC and from grassroots groups such as Howie Klein's Blue America PAC and VoteVets, with lesser support from the DCCC. She won that campaign by six points in an upstate NY Republican district. Did John Sweeney's personal problems (allegations of spouse abuse) enter into the campaign? Very possibly. Gillibrand was polling about fourteen points behind Sweeney until just a couple of weeks before the election. What counted to a larger degree in that last couple of weeks, though, was a very strong GOTV effort by grassroots groups--the kind of volunteer help that the DCCC doesn't do well.

These are by no means isolated examples--Jerry McNerney's dust-off of the truly vile seven-term Richard Pombo in California's 11th Congressional district came largely without help from the DCCC--Emanuel's group ran a candidate against McNerney in the primary, and didn't come in with money and strategic help until late in October. Most of McNerney's million-dollar campaign was funded by and powered on the ground by grassroots environmentalists (McNerney is a mathematician and long-time windpower engineer). The NRCC alone spent $1.4 million in the campaign--largely on negative advertising--while the DCCC contributed a mere $216,000.

Rahm Emanuel and his counterpart in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, were hoping to preserve a status quo which, to my mind, began at the beginning of the Reagan administration. The then-Democratic House acceded to what amounted to the destruction of FDR's New Deal, backing off on oversight of Sherman Act enforcement, drastically lowering taxes on big business, jumping on the deregulation bandwagon which was a direct cause of the savings and loan debacle and beginning a round of tax cuts for the wealthy that shattered the progressive tax system. What was in the minds of Democratic legislators then was a belief that they would share in the proceeds--Democrats, by throwing their lot in with big business, expected to see a greater share of campaign contributions come their way. What actually happened? Big business gave even more money to Republicans, as usual, and the very wealthiest of the far right wing had even more money to spend on think tanks, PR firms and speakers' bureaus which they used in shaping the public debate and in pushing conventional wisdom ever rightward.

The logic of that strategy was breathtakingly stupid. Democrats had won elections consistently by portraying themselves as protecting the poor and the middle class from the predations of the wealthy Republican elite, even though they were outgunned in campaign contributions--until Reagan was elected. Why they thought that more campaign money was going to come their way, or why they thought that more campaign money would woo away the Reagan Democrats from Republican control is still a mystery. They let themselves be railroaded into spending absurd amounts of money on defense, to no good end, at the same time they were cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthy (thus tripling the national debt in the eight years of the Reagan administration), and rolled over for all manner of decidedly bad policies. They cut off the Iran-Contra investigation at the knees (fearing a backlash because Reagan was "popular," when, in fact, Reagan was despised by the Democratic base and a full investigation of Reagan's--and George H.W. Bush's--role in the affair would have ended what popularity Reagan did have and would have relegated his administration to the trash heap where it belonged, and just might have ruined Bush's chances of winning the 1988 election). And then, in 1987, those same Democrats cheerily dispensed with virtually all of the essential provisions of the Fairness Doctrine, a policy which had protected their right to be heard in the public arena regardless of how much money the Republicans had for political advertising and cultural myth-making.

As I say, breathtakingly stupid. As Democrats moved to the right to accommodate big business, on issue after issue, ever since that time, Democrats have been losing ground. Overall, they didn't gain in percentage-wise fashion in campaign contributions, and they lost votes as they became more and more indistinguishable from their Republican opponents.

Quite beyond the ordinary politics of it all, the country suffered because the Democrats let themselves be deceived into thinking money was more important than votes. Unnecessary wars, twelve years of domination of both houses of Congress by some of the most corrupt, shifty and slimy Republican politicians the country has ever produced, privatization and politicization of the military and the intelligence services, the destruction of the Treasury and the country's international reputation, all have come about because pro-big business groups such as the DLC enticed Democrats to abandon their base and their core principles on the vague promise of more campaign cash. No one benefitted from that strategy except big business and the very wealthy.

The next two years will decide not only the 2008 election, but what happens to progressive Democrats in the years beyond. If the character of the Democratic caucus changes because of those elected in 2006 largely without the help (or in spite of the active interference) of the DCCC under Rahm Emanuel, if progressives prove to their constituents they can produce positive results for working Americans, it might turn the party around. One election won't do it, but steady results, year after year, will.

If the DLC types prevail, however, the country will continue its descent toward authoritarian kleptocracy and eventual bankruptcy, and the Democrats won't be able to blame the other party for that, because they will have promoted it as eagerly as have the Republicans. On the other hand, if progressives gain the upper hand in that caucus, we might have a shot at fixing some of the truly gargantuan problems coming up in the next two or three decades. And what no calculating, big business-promoting, campaign cash-hungry status quo Democrat realizes right now is that changing the character of the Democratic Party will also change the character of the Republican Party. By the combined efforts of the DLC Democrats and the Republicans, the center has shifted to the far right, the political environment has become progressively more polarized and poisonous, the debate more rancorous, and the trading of political favors for campaign cash all the more obvious and cynical (and all that is by Republican design). Establishing the Democratic Party as progressive, fiscally and socially responsible, ethically uncompromising and dedicated to the interests of the poor, the middle class and small business will go a long, long way in moving that center back where it belongs.

For over twenty years, Democrats have played the game the Republicans' way, to the country's considerable detriment. In cozying up to the fat cats, the Democrats have been increasingly marginalized electorally and demonized culturally, while the country's middle class sinks. It took an intractable idiot like George Bush and a massive dose of public corruption to finally stir the electorate from its torpor, and if the Democrats are smart (and that's still in some doubt), they will seize this moment and build on it, for the good of the entire country. The first step in doing so is recognizing that the strategy of the last twenty-five years of favoring the rich has failed everyone except the rich.


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