Direction and Voters
By Michael Bradley
With 40% of the nation’s wealth now controlled by the top 1% of Americans, and with Republican Pres. George W. Bush’s ten-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut about to shift that much more economic strength and power to the rich and super-rich, it does seem incredible that the Democratic Party could not find a way of discussing the phenomenon that would have made the average citizen take note as he or she went to the polls in this most historic mid-term election.
As James Traub recently noted in the New York Times Magazine, “the United States (currently) has the most unequal distribution of wealth in the Western world.” Traub also refers to a recently published book – Wealth and Democracy, by Kevin Phillips – that makes the case “that America is now approaching the historic levels of inequality reached before the adoption of the federal income tax in 1913, when the top 1 percent of citizens owned more than half the nation’s wealth.”
Yet the Democrats, in possession of these facts and with a clear historic knowledge of the dangers involved when a democratic state becomes a plutocracy, could not come together and create a dialogue with the country.
This scenario is particularly ironic given the ancillary facts, many of which were and are particularly tasty politically:
1) The sitting President lost the popular vote and was effectively slam-dunked through the Electoral College by a 5-4 Supreme Court intervention, with the majority justices clearly aligned with the Republican Party that nominated most if not all of them to their lifetime positions.
2) At the same time that the nation was rocked by accounting scandals beginning with Enron, one of the country’s biggest energy companies, the administration of former oilman George Bush put into effect a national energy policy that clearly seems to have been co-authored, if not dictated, by the largest oil and gas interests. And, the Bush Administration has cloaked the process in secrecy, rebuffing all demands from various government agencies for minutes of the meetings chaired by another former oilman, the reclusive Vice President Richard Cheney.
3) The War on Terrorism has moved from an international effort to root out Al Qaeda and all its operatives to the development of reasons for war with Iraq. Now there are terrorist bombings in Bali and other parts of the world that clearly either have Al Qaeda connections, or are the work of Islamic emulators. But official Washington says little aside from its plans to deal with Saddam Hussein.
In the wake of the recent mid-term elections, in which the Democrats failed to seriously raise any of those, and other, available issues, the Grand Old Party of the Republicans won complete control of the Congress. The Republicans have managed not to gloat very much, but party members haven’t had much success in restraining smirks. On the other side of the major party divide, the Democrats have begun wallowing in a potpourri of mea culpa self-analysis, finger pointing, blame shifting and rationalization that only adds to the party’s general incohesiveness and incoherence.
And it was the latter, the soft and squishy inability to find a coherent national voice, that fueled the Democratic debacle in the first place.
Americans of all persuasions like to hear a good argument, well stated and with conviction; the history of the United States is replete with proof that Americans will recognize and listen when it is clear the political message is being delivered with candor.
But if the Democratic Party is not to become completely marginalized it must disavow some of its current practices, where candor is sublimated by the shaping process of pollsters and political advisors.
How, for example, could Democratic Party leaders, in and out of Congress, join with Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe in concluding that it would be best to acquiesce to the GOP on the two largest issues of our day; war and tax cuts? The idea of getting the 'war vote' and the tax giveaway out of the way by throwing in the proverbial towel, in the hope that the national economy could then be discussed, might have seemed plausible inside the Washington beltway, but it looked very odd if not ridiculous in the vast remainder of the country.
Regarding the war vote, columnist Mary McGrory, appearing in the Boston Globe, offered one answer. “Democrats are scared stiff,” she declared regarding the Congressional war vote. “If they refuse, they will be accused of failing to recognize a crisis; if they go along, they will pass a new version of the Vietnam War’s calamitous Gulf of Tonkin resolution.”
Clearly the Democrats chose to duck both issues; perhaps in the hope that Americans would intuitively understand the position the GOP had maneuvered them into and would somehow repudiate the Republican policies at the ballot box. How ridiculous. Perceiving the weakness of the Democrats the electorate was in fact intuitive, and it understandably backed the political party that at the least was being decisive.
How badly out of touch can the Democrats be not to understand that Americans quickly recognize the difference between being a game underdog and being a coward or wimp who won’t strike back when attacked. Americans will root for the game underdog, but they have never had much sympathy for anyone who won’t stand up for himself or herself.
This was the lesson that Al Gore failed to absorb during his ill-fated election, but he has good company; the lesson is lost on others as well. Joe Lieberman showed how he missed the point not too long ago when Lieberman disparagingly commented about Gore's involvement in all "that economic populist stuff" during the last Presidential campaign. If anything, what was needed was a blunter, more dynamic populist dialogue.
Think how the GOP would have responded if the political circumstances had been reversed! Imagine the loud political and media drumbeat we would be enduring had Al Gore and Joe Lieberman won both the majority vote and the Electoral College vote, instead of just the former? At the time of Sen. Paul Wellstone’s tragic death while campaigning in Minnesota, we would have been hearing radio and TV commentators shouting, “Where’s Osama, Al?” And we’d be reading newspaper headlines screaming: “It’s Day 409, Pres. Gore; where is Osama?”
And that would have been only the tip of the constant, day in and day out, attack. There would be extreme criticism of every move the Democratic President might make, and if there were no huge scandals – such as the obvious ones the GOP has currently left in its wake – there would be personal attacks and scurrilous suggestions about the President’s goals and motives. The attack would be unrelenting.
Think what it would be like now if the Democrats chose to pound the drumbeat about Mr. Bush and his actions and the policies of his administration the same way the Republicans did for both terms of William Clinton’s Presidency? The Democrats wouldn’t have to go chasing will o’ the wisp hopes that some scandal might turn up from a failed real estate venture like Whitewater, where the GOP spent millions of taxpayer dollars to ravage reputations and put obstacles in front of the elected administration, yet no proof of wrongdoing was ever uncovered. In the end the courts released those who had been unfairly punished, but as usual the crescendo of the story was a whisper at the conclusion. Yet after all, it was the noise the GOP wanted; the ability to create an impression of wrongdoing even if there was only ineptness.
And what about the so-called Travelgate scandal that the GOP ballyhooed regarding the White House Travel Office? This scandal occupied front page news columns, TV briefs, and constant radio barrages for months and months at the start of the Clinton Administration. But in the end – without any fanfare – it was revealed that much of what appeared to be wrong had been set in motion, apparently purposefully, by GOP operatives, some of whom had been left in place from the administration of former Pres. George H.W. Bush by the generosity and political naiveté of the new Clinton Administration.
All of that says nothing about the misogyny that was loudly and publicly displayed by the GOP, and which brought together haters of all stripes, when former First Lady Hillary Clinton dared to finally try to do something to overhaul health care. Who today can even recall the parameters of Clinton’s proposals, they were so drowned out by female bashing conservative interests and the Conservative Media that follows their lead.
After spending millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars investigating a sitting President, and vilifying him and his family in every conceivable manner, all that could be found by the GOP and its investigators was that Bill Clinton had trouble keeping his pants on. The same could be said about many of both sexes in all political parties, and certainly could be said about a number of past Presidents. The majority of Americans understood that fact.
Americans also understood that they were having their noses rubbed into the President’s affair because of partisan goals. They further understood that there was a very strong smell of entrapment in the sordid mess that was heaped on their doorstep, and they tended to be angrier at Clinton’s indiscretion given that it was obvious he already knew the Republicans were putting him under a dirty microscope, and yet he took such risk anyway.
During the past decade the Grand Old Party has been waging the most vicious partisan warfare imaginable against the Democratic Party. The GOP has foregone all the graciousness and civility that Americans had come to expect and admire in their political process, and replaced it with a no-holds-barred style of low-toned brawling that reduces all substantive discussion to a question of winning at all costs.
Yet up until now, the Democrats have seemed wedded to the gracious past; they have been civil and polite to the point of passivity. And that is why they are losing.
Al Gore missed this truth completely in his campaign. He bought into the GOP’s stance and tried to distance himself from Pres. William Clinton as though somehow he was reaching for the high road. But he wasn’t on the high road, he was on the by-pass, and thoughtful Americans recognized it right away. Even though the majority of voters still backed him, it was in large part out of personal anger and frustration at ten years of Republican policies and tactics.
When Al Gore ran for President most Democrats and a good many conscientious Republicans were waiting for the political fight that the GOP was begging for, but instead they got a dry dissertation on policy with some weak populist references that ignored the recent, brutal political history.
Democrats especially, but Americans in general believed that Clinton had managed the country’s business quite well while under constant attack, even if he had failed to keep control of his libido. Al Gore should have come out swinging. It would have been very easy for him to stand on the accomplishments of the Clinton/Gore years and yet not be tarred by Pres. Clinton’s personal scandals. But he didn’t.
His weak-knee approach stultified the debate and did more than disappoint Americans who were waiting for him to hit back at the GOP. The GOP richly deserved a good fight for its attempt to thwart a democratically elected administration by constant investigations and, when that failed, resorting to a shallow, sordid and excruciatingly partisan Impeachment trial. That is why Al Gore is still largely held in disrepute and seen as ineffective.
And that is why, after this most recent debacle, Terry McAuliffe should put on his coat and go home. He won’t even have to dust off his jacket, since he never got it dirty in the rough and tumble politics that the GOP has become so fond of using throughout the nation.
The Democrats need to find a clear, strong voice quickly if they are not going to be a minority party for years to come, as the 1 percent at the top come close to gaining 50% of the nation’s wealth, a situation not unlike that of 100 years ago that ultimately led to the worst Depression the nation has ever experienced.
Editor’s Note: Joseph E. Bradleyfulco collaborated in the development of this commentary.