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By Bruce Tompkins (aka Sean Bennett)
The Democratic Party’s dismal performance in the recent mid-term elections should have come as a rude awakening. The Democrats must now face the fact that the party’s prevailing strategy of appeasement toward President Bush, is not a winning one. Under the timid leadership of Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt, the Democrats have followed a program that has made them nothing more than lapdogs to President Bush. What’s more, this lackey status has not had the intended effect of attracting swing voters. But it has had the unintended effect of not adequately motivating the party’s base. By not standing strong on traditionally Democratic issues, and not pointing to the President’s many flaws, the Democrats have squandered one of their best chances of recapturing the House. It is time now for the Democratic party to drop it’s centrist ambitions into an early grave, and call up what ever fight it has left. However, criticism of the President by itself, will not reverse the Democrats fortunes. They need to present alternatives to what Bush is offering, and they need to promote them in such a manner that the American people understand them. Not only that, but Democrats must work doubly hard to get their message heard over the ever-increasing pounding of war drums. Put simply, it is time now for bold ideas, and hard work.
First thing the Democrats need to do is clean house. Daschle and Gephardt need to be given their walking papers. Their ineptitude has resulted in one missed opportunity after another. It seems that after Gore conceded the election, the Democrats just forgot about it. Meanwhile Bush behaved as if he had been swept into office with an overwhelming mandate. Daschle and Gephardt never bothered to remind the American people that Bush actually received half a million votes less than Al Gore. Then came the Enron implosion, then Global Crossing, and then Worldcom. But the Democrats claimed that there just wasn’t anything directly linking these corporate criminals to the Bush White House. But then Halliburton came under fire for it’s accounting practices. Then allegations surfaced surrounding Bush’s shady Harken stock sales. But instead of making political hay out of these moments of weakness, Daschle and Gephardt were missing in action. It seems that after September 11th, the Democrats gave Bush a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card. Which is understandable, considering that not many Democrats were willing to take on the President and his stratospheric approval ratings, opting instead to rely on Bush to do himself in on the economy. But here is just one more example of how playing it safe, can be extremely dangerous. If the Democrats made a concerted effort to point out the shortcomings of Bush‘s economic program, those approval ratings might have been kept at reasonable levels. But the Democrats chose instead to embrace Bush on the war, and let nature take it’s course on the economy. Some even decided it would be prudent to side with Bush on the tax cut issue. It is somewhat ironic that those that did so the most, such as Jean Carnahan in Missouri, and Max Cleland in Georgia, lost the hardest. Ultimately, it was the lack of effective leadership from Senator Daschle that allowed this nonsense to take place.
Just days after the Democrats "bloody Tuesday", House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Missouri), announced that he would not be seeking another term as Minority Leader. This meant that ultra-liberal California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, elected Minority Whip last year, would be moving in to the top spot. Nancy Pelosi has a strong record of pushing progressive ideas, and is a "San Francisco Democrat" in the best sense of the term.
She favors trade reform, affordable healthcare, an equitable tax code, and she voted against the resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. If the Democrats ever want to stand for something as a party, Nancy Pelosi is their woman.
However, some Democrats are afraid that Pelosi’s liberalism will alienate centrist voters, and further marginalize the Democrats. Chief among Pelosi’s detractors are the New Democrats, or the Blue Dogs. Mostly from Texas and other southern states, the "New Democrats" are afraid that Pelosi will bring the party too far to the left, and will turn off moderates. Simon Rosenberg, of the New Democrat Network say’s that if the Democrats "run left at all from where we are right now, we won’t be competitive at all in the 2004 Presidential and Congressional elections". His concerns are shared by many in the party. However, in many instances, the numbers simply don’t support them. Consider the fact that if only Al Gore had leaned a little more to the left in 2000, Ralph Nader might not have pulled as many votes away from him. Just one percent of Nader’s total in the State of Florida, would have given Gore the edge in that state and thus the Presidency. So it appears that the danger is not in going too far to the left, but in wandering around the center. This turns off the party’s base, and leaves the most liberal Democrats susceptible to the messages of maverick candidates such as Nader. As we can see, these losses are not being offset by the highly overrated "soccer mom" vote. The next Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, ought to make Jim Hightower’s 1996 book There’s Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos required reading.
Charles Stenholm, a blue dog Democrat Congressman from Texas, say’s that "Democrats can’t win by merely rallying the faithful". But neither can the Democrats win, if the party faithful doesn’t see any reason to get up and vote, or if they would rather vote for Ralph Nader, because they feel that the Democrats no longer stand for anything. Stenholm further explains, "Democrats need to attract independent and Republican voters in order to win". With this kind of thinking, it is no wonder that Democrats can hardly stomach the thought of going to the polls.
If Congressman Stenholm and these New Democrats are so fond of Republican voters, perhaps they should be working for the Republican party. While there is nothing wrong with Democrats trying to make inroads into traditionally Republican strongholds, these efforts must not come at the expense of traditionally Democratic ones.
To anyone who has remotely followed politics in the last couple of years, the argument that Nancy Pelosi’s "San Francisco Liberalism", might not fly in the so-called "fly-over territory" that makes up Americas vast heartland, is not without merit. But does this mean the Democrats have to abandon their principles in order to remain viable? Not at all. They must simply work that much harder to lay out their message. They must find ways to frame progressive ideas in terms that these people understand. Many of whom, are out of work because of NAFTA, or struggling to make ends meet on minimum wage, or worried about getting sick because they don’t have health insurance. Oddly enough, many of these people vote for Republican candidates every year. Democrats need to organize a massive grassroots campaign to talk to these people, and explain how they want to help make the economy better, raise wages, and reform the nations healthcare industry. To be sure, this is a lot harder than simply pilfering the Republicans ideas and calling yourself a New Democrat. But in the long run, hard work will pay off.
Election results consistently show that Democrats who clearly differentiated themselves from President Bush and the Republicans, won by the widest margins. Pointing to New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago as examples, probably wouldn’t surprise anyone. However, in Republican states such as Texas and Ohio for example, progressive Democrats seemed to fare much better than their moderate couterparts. In Ohio, Dennis Kucinich clobbered his Republican opponent with 74 percent of the vote. Also in Ohio, Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, another progressive Democrat won with 76 percent of the vote. In Texas, Sheila Jackson Lee, a fiercely liberal Democrat, won by 77 percent. In Arizona, progressive Democrat Ed Pastor won by 67 percent of the vote. In Missouri, progressive Democrat William "Lacy" Clay garnered 70 percent of the vote. Now not all progressive candidacies are success stories. Here, one might point to the late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone’s foundering re-election bid up until his tragic death a week before the election. One might say that when running in a statewide election, as opposed to a small congressional district, voters have little love for two-fisted, progressive Democrats. However, Wellstone didn’t seem to have too much of a problem in 1990 and 1996 when both times he won handily. Additionally, one would have to point out the incredible level of support the President showed for Republican challenger Norm Coleman, and the fact that Paul Wellstone had earlier promised not to run for a third term. Furthermore, many Minnesotans were turned off by the less-than-mournful tone of Wellstone’s funeral service, which has been described by many as having been turned into a pep rally. In another interesting statewide race in a battleground state, Russ Feingold, the progressive Senator from Wisconsin, was re-elected in 1998, after swearing off the use of soft money contributions. Other Democrats should pay attention to this. If more Democrats were able to free themselves from the taint of soft money, they would be less beholden to special interests, and therefore more attentive to the needs of their constituencies. Not only that, but if the Democrats had not taken so much money from Enron and WorldCom, they would have been in a better position to capitalize politically from all the accounting scandals.
As the 2002 election becomes history, and the campaign for 2004 begins, the Democrats need to start acting like the opposition party that they are. The Democrats can no longer be partners in crime with the Bush administration. But we don’t need innocent bystanders either. The Democrats must combine their efforts and muster the determination and power necessary to prevent some of the Bush Administration’s more dangerous proposals from being carried out. If the Democrats can‘t do this, they are no longer of any use to the American people. Should Nancy Pelosi become the Democrats next Minority Leader, (as of this revision, she has) she must act fast to sure up the party’s liberal base, and then begin the arduous endeavor of bringing new faces into the fold. This can not be accomplished with the Democratic Party going through an identity crisis. The Democrats must define themselves as the party of progressive values, and it must go to battle for those values. With a little luck, and a lot of hard work, the Democrats may be able to regain some lost ground in the next national election.