Democrats: Road to Nowhere

Against the Current, No. 37, March/April 1992

The Editors

AFFIRMATiVE ACTION FOR the rich and gimmicks for everyone else: Though his media consultants billed it as a crucial turning point and defining moment of his presidency, neither George Bush’s State of the Union address nor his 1993 budget proposals offered any significant deviation from the gospel he inherited from Reagan.

Bush once again is proposing dramatic cuts in the capital gains tax. At the same time he wants to slash $5 billion from 246 domestic programs—home heating insurance, housing for the elderly and disabled, Amtrak, aid to Appalachia. Yet even with the Cold War over, Bush wants an increase in this year’s Star Wars budget from $4.1 to $5.4 billion. His proposed military budget—a whopping $291 billion, just $12 billion less than the 1992 figure—involves more monies than those proposed for unemployment compensation, housing and food aid, child welfare and education benefits, and education combined.

But the victims aren’t buying the hype. Seventy-three percent of the U.S. public now thinks the country is on the wrong track. Less than half approve the job Bush is doing; fewer than 20% approve of the way he is handling domestic policy. Sixty-five percent believe that the Federal government should prime the pump to create jobs, 74% that it should spend more on education and health care. Sixty-five percent are willing to subsidize national health care through a payroll tax; over half are willing to pay $1000 a year in taxes for nationalized health care.

The Undemocratic Option

From these numbers, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Democratic Party is being handed a golden opportunity to reoccupy the White House for the first time since Jimmy Carter. But as the London-based Economist recently observed in a lead editorial, the 1992 elections “will inspire little and change less.” Far from any prospect of a progressive, or even liberal, agenda or candidate, Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley best sums up the state of affairs with his admission that “We share goals [with Bush]; we just differ on means.”

If, as the Economist suggests, U.S. “politics is happily becoming dull” as it confronts the “problem” of “finding anything serious to disagree about,” it is certainly not because the country’s people are problem-free. But in the absence of any authentic opposition part both those problems and the rising tide of anger that accompanies them only highlight the gulf between an increasingly discontented population and a political system that thoroughly disempowers it.

Dull indeed—but happily? Bush’s State of the Union proposed a capital gains cut and investment tax credits; Democratic front-runner Bill Clinton supports a 50% cut in the former and fully supports the latter, while joining rival candidate Bob Kerrey in urging tax breaks for the “middle class.” Both have apparently bought the gospel spread by the Democrats’ congressional study group: Democrats have been so preoccupied with the problems of the underclass, so it is said, that we haven’t put as much emphasis on the middle class as we should have.

The numbers behind the candidates’ proposals belie the populist rhetoric in which they are disguised. The Joint Congressional Committee on Taxation projects that 78% of benefits from a capital gains cut will benefit those already making over $200,000 a year. As these get richer, those with whom the Democrats are supposedly concerned would consequently suffer even more than they have already.

The specifics in frontrunner Clinton’s proposals spell this out clearly. Those with incomes under $82,000 a year would get small tax bracket cuts of around 1.5%; taxes for those with incomes between $82,000 and $200,000 would remain the same; taxes for those making more than $200,000 would rise from 28% to 38%. Given that the median income in the United States is below $30,000; Clinton’s proposal legitimates this increasingly regressive tax structure by merely tinkering with it.

Clinton’s 12-Year Affair With Business

Clinton’s tax proposal, the centerpiece of his campaign, is perfectly consistent with the equally regressive economic policies he has pursued as Arkansas governor. Inheriting a regressive tax structure when first elected in 1978, Clinton proceeded to make it even more so by raising the sales tax while leaving income and business levies untouched. When Arkansas voters tried to roll back the sales tax, first through legislative action and then through voter initiative, Clinton opposed them.

The Governor was meanwhile keeping Arkansas safe for business. Clinton established the pro-business Arkansas Industrial Development Commission to help insure that Arkansas, historically a right-to-work state, stayed that way. He has refused to support legislation calling for an elimination of right-to-work (which bans union shops). Supporting the forthcoming free trade pact with Mexico, he calls for higher productivity (read: speedup) as an answer to the country’s economic woes. And to insure high productivity in Arkansas, he has actively done nothing to improve the lax regulations that have earned the state the dubious honor of being ranked forty-eighth on the Green Index.

Clinton’s other proposals and positions are arguably worse. Nominally pm-choice, he advocates making abortion “safe, legal and rare;” to keep it rare in Arkansas he supported legislation calling for parental notification and consistently opposed Medicaid-funded abortions. He opposes the Sarbanes-Sasser bill calling for $35 billion to be invested in public works projects, education and grants to state and local governments targeted toward the inner cities.

Clinton proposes that all “able-bodied” welfare recipients be removed from the rolls. He also supports the death penalty. Though claiming to favor national health insurance, he has provided little indication of how he would pay for it beyond promises to eliminate “billing fraud” and “administrative waste.”

Running far to the right of the hapless 1988 campaign of Michael Dukakis, Clinton is nonetheless picking up an impressive-or should we say, appalling-amount of support from labor. In New York City, for example, AFSCME head Stanley Hill, UFT president Sandra Feldman, and most surprisingly Dennis Rivera, head of the traditionally progressive 1199–have climbed aboard the Clinton bandwagon, all citing his “electability” rather than his policies as their primary reason.

Harkin, Imagery and Reality

Watching these developments, supporters of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin are understandably frustrated. Clearly the most liberal candidate in a hardly distinguished field, Harkin has voted with labor more than 90% of the time and sports a human rights record that includes confrontations with U.S.-backed regimes from South Vietnam to Chile. With his working class background and a reputation as a champion of labor and the rural poor, Harkin ostensibly fills the void left by Jesse Jackson’s decision not to run a third time.

Harkin wraps himself in the mantle of Roosevelt’s New Deal. His insistence that government invest in the country’s infrastructure, and his call to the Democrats to return to unashamed liberalism, seem to represent a rejection of Washington’s “happily dull” bipartisan consensus. Harlan’s liberal credentials thus make it especially painful for many Rainbow Coalition activists to swallow the defection of someone like Dennis Rivera—who was New York City co-chair of Jackson’s presidential bid—to the Clinton camp.

As Kevin Gray, now a Harkin supporter and one-time coordinator forJesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign in South Carolina, argues: “Ifyou win and remove all of your principles in the process, you don’t win anything.” So true—if only the left would heed that advice! But the question remains: How much would progressives “win” under Harkin? Despite his appealing slogans, the facts are considerably less inspiring.

Harkin promises investment and jobs, but proposes only halving the military budget over ten years to pay for it (which to be sure is the closest thing around to a serious proposal for a peace dividend). Avowedly pro-business, his campaign coffers are bolstered by corporate giants such as AT&T, General Electric and Martin Marietta. As chair of the appropriations committee on labor, health and human services and education,he also receives hefty campaign contributions from health industry associations—an inauspicious sign for health care reform. Harlan also owes a large personal debt to a huge powerhouse law and lobbying firm.

Moreover, Harlan is one of the Senate’s top recipients of monies from pro-Israel PACs. This might explain why he, like the other four Democrats in the field, are even more reactionary than Bush on Middle East policy. Even as he draws on his human rights record, Harkin refuses to condemn Israel’s treatment of Palestinians—from the massive proliferation of settlements to the electric shock treatment of prisoners, deportations, house demolitions and systematic destruction of Palestinian agriculture and economy.

While Bush may grant only a portion of the $10 billion loan guarantees Israel has demanded, Harlan favors the whole sum—even though the Israeli Knesset just earmarked two-thirds of state-financed building in its new budget for settlement construction in the Occupied Territories.

The remainder of Harlan’s international agenda, to the extent it has been spelled out, doesn’t attack the intrinsic character of Bush’s cowboy foreign policy but simply suggests that the money would be better spent “rebuilding America.” That has a simplistically attractive ring, but as Guardian correspondent Kevin Kelley noted, Harlan’s protectionist call to “put America first,” coupled with a racist appeal to the rising tide of anti-Japanese sentiment, “begins to resemble [Patrick] Buchanan’s.”

The left, surely, should never confuse principled anti-interventionism with the “America First” right-wing version of imperialist politics! Further, even aside from its racism, Japan-bashingthe program articulated for the Democrats by Chrysler Chairman Lee laccocca—solves no fundamental economic problems. Actually, in 1990Japan was the world’s third-largest importer, and imported only $150 per capita less than the United States. A recent World Bank study demonstrates that Japan uses fewer non-tariff barriers (quotas, licenses, voluntary export restraints and the like) than the United States. Japan’s tariffs also average 2.6% compared to 3% in the United States.

For a Working Alternative

In hot pursuit of the chimerical white “middle class” voter who can turn their electoral fortunes around, and above all loyal to the dictates of capital, the Democrats are poised once again to forfeit the White House rather than offer the populist alternative which would allow them to reclaim it That is their problem, but the left must detach itself from the Democrats’ debacle.

Given Jesse Jackson’s absence from the 1992 race, issues of populism or solidarity are not even on the fringes of the agenda. All five Democratic candidates continually duck such issues as AIDS, the welfare system, affirmative action, multiculturalism or drugs, except when they pander to suburban America’s worst instinct by promising to be tough on crime and welfare “freeloaders.” Their focus on the “middle class” and collective refusal to address the urban catastrophe reflect the extent to which they are allowing Bush—with his vicious race and class war against workers, Black America and the poor—to set the agenda.

As Against the Current has argued, it will require a break with the Democrats to forge a truly alternative political formation both rooted in the working class and responsive to its diversity. Potential precursors of such a new direction already exist—evidenced in Ron Daniels’ campaign, in Labor Party Advocates, in the Greens’ national meeting this past November in Dallas, in the sentiment inside NOW for a third party.

These efforts, however important, remain small, underfunded and (most important) working separately. Given the absence of the powerful alternative coalition for which Ron Daniels is energetically working—but which admittedly doesn’t exist at this moment—many progressives and socialists will hold their noses and vote for what they perceive to be the lesser evil. But as the Democrats’ platforms make painfully clear, they are plenty evil and insufficiently lesser to merit our vote—let alone the legitimacy that every such vote helps to confer.

March-April 1992, ATC 37