Budget Wrestlemania

Against the Current, No. 60, January/February 1996

The Editors

WHILE FRENCH LABOR responded to social security and welfare cuts with a paralyzing public workers’ strike–throwing into turmoil not only the Chirac government’s plans, but the whole project of a capitalist unified Europe–the U.S. picture could hardly have been more different. Republicans and Democrats engaged in a budget wrestlemania, complete with ritual woofing and barking and hero-versus-villain casting, but ninety percent of it a phony war. Indeed, the whole conflict between Clinton and the Republicans over the 1996 budget should help convince those still hopeful about Clinton that a strategy of supporting Clinton and the Democrats is a loser.

As early as last Spring, Clinton dismayed Democratic Party stalwarts like Richard Gephardt when he refused to reject the Republican plan to balance the budget in seven years, with all the cuts, especially to “middle class” entitlement such as Medicare, plus the huge tax break to the rich. Gephardt reasoned that the Republicans had walked into a trap of their own making, particularly when the size of the tax break for the rich was almost exactly equal to the size of the cuts in Medicare and Medicaid.

Here was a golden opportunity for the Democrats to show that the Republicans’ interest in budget cutting was definitely subordinate to their interest in lining the pockets of the rich at the expense of “middle class” workers. Clinton, already under the influence of his Republican advisor Dick Morris, would have none of it.

Clinton instead adopted his now famous “triangulation” tactic, distancing himself from the “liberals” and the Republicans alike, calling for a balanced budget in ten years, rather than seven. To make sure no one doubted where he stood, he let it be known that he himself disapproved of his own 1993 tax increase, which actually had gone a small distance in the direction of progressivity, not to mention budget balancing.

The outcome of the Republicans’ actual passage of the budget demonstrated the potential for popular resistance and opposition to the right-wing offensive. Even the muffled opposition and far less than clear alternatives posed by the Democrats found a response among the majority of the population. Public opinion polls showed the popularity of the Republicans plummeting by the day, no doubt aided by the arrogant ineptness of Newt Gingrich.

It looked as if Clinton had been given a second chance, when the problem emerged of securing funds for the provisional financing of government operations. Clinton could not only look tough in a situation where Republicans were looking like irresponsible wreckers. He had, again, the chance to salvage a clear position on the budget: no tax cuts to the rich to finance Medicare.

Yet in classic Clintonian fashion, Clinton made clear absolutely nothing, actually agreeing to the Republicans’ idea of balancing the budget in seven years. In so doing, he positively committed himself to two things: cuts in virtually everything, if not cuts quite so great as the Republicans are asking, and tax breaks for the rich, though not quite as great as the Republicans are demanding.

What this says is that Clinton may be today one inch to the left of the Republicans, as he continues to apply his tactic of fighting for the “dynamic center” of the electorate. But it could not be more obvious that this tactical position will move him step by step rightward, and ever more willing to sacrifice the needs of working
people, as the “dynamic right” calls for ever more draconian austerity and ever more gifts for the rich.

Clinton will always, in other words, be “better” than the Republicans. On those grounds, people will always have “reasons” to support him. But so long as support goes in this way to Clinton, the rest of us will be ever more massively worse off.

Clinton’s idea, and the reigning idea of all Democrats today, is to win back from the Republicans the Reagan Democrats, as he did in 1992. In the crude understanding, these are white male workers who think of themselves as “middle class” and have tended to see the poor and racial minorities, rather than the capitalists and the rich, as their enemy. Their political instinct, so goes the reasoning, is therefore to join with anyone and everyone who will cut taxes, since those taxes are seen as benefiting the “undeserving” poor rather than the “deserving middle class of working people.

This thinking is considerably aided by the yellow press and right-wing talks shows, which continually agitate against welfare recipients, but say nothing about the vastly more important government efforts favoring the rich. It should be crystal clear that the rest of the Democratic Party is pursuing the same strategy, but are doing so with slightly different tactics.

This was all too evident in the disgusting behavior of almost all of the Senate “liberals” in supporting the Republicans’ welfare <169>reform<170> bill. That bill will bring deeper poverty and more hunger, as even the Democrats’ own commission report on the bill made clear. But these Democrats don’t care, for they too believe the way to keep their offices is to sacrifice the poor who supposedly don’t vote.

The bulk of the Democrats are moving so far and fast to the right that even “welfare expert” Patrick Moynihan found himself to the left of his senatorial colleagues, just by sticking to the conservative positions of the seventies and eighties (reaffirmation of welfare entitlement but with the addition of “job training,” workfare and child care). This is not a political or ideological “mistake” of the Democratic Party but is deeply ingrained in their own pro-capitalist logic and financial base.

Anyone who wants to support the Democrats, then, must be crystal clear that there is no disagreement among them on strategy–going for the middle–but only tactical disagreement on how to secure it for 1996 and beyond. Both sides of this tactical divide refuse to challenge the all-pervasive axiom that it is the poor and racial minorities, rather than the rich and the capitalists, who are the “pathology” of this rotting society.

Beneath a thin veneer of rhetoric about “fairness,” what is involved in the political position of the Democratic Party as a whole, not just Clinton, is an alliance between the rich and the “better off” parts of the working class, against the rest of the working class and especially the poor. The assault becomes increasingly brutal as corporate downsizing continues through the boom and as entitlements get progressively cut–each cutback enlarging “the poor” and setting the scene for the next cut.

It could hardly be more evident that what is needed is an alliance of the entire working class–both the “better off” and “the poor”–against U.S. capital. It’s obvious, too, that this cannot be achieved by standing up for the Democrats against the Republicans but only by breaking from the Democrats to establish a dynamic pole that could force the whole political world leftward.

To get an idea what is needed one has only to think back to the period of the ’60s and early ’70s, when the great mass movements of that period made that well-known welfare state pinko Richard Nixon into a virtual socialist, compared to what would, by those days’ standards, have been the far right-wing Republican William Clinton.

The ongoing economic dynamics–continuing world economic stagnation, despite high profits in the United States, plus globalization and deregulation–mean continuing attacks on working people. There is no defense against this through Democratic Party electoralism. Moreover, without the power of social movements, the Democrats will always accommodate to right-wing pressure.

Capital, and virtually the entire world of established opinion that is aligned with it, plus the dynamic grassroots right-wing Republicans, are and will continue to use the ideological picture of “the rich plus the middle class” versus the rest…and bit by bit they will succeed if there is no alternative.

The French working class has pointed the way for a reversal of the worldwide right-wing offensive. While the mainstream press smugly proclaims that the 1995 French strike movement is not “ideological” like its 1968 predecessor, which began among students and spread to the working class, the 1995 struggle is nonetheless “ideological” in the most profound sense: workers uniting to fight together against a common enemy. It’s noteworthy that the 1995 strike movement has been organized by the public sector unions but is broadly supported by the public and enjoys massive sympathy from the private sector workers, a factor that prevents the government from turning to a repressive solution.

Next door to us in Canada, where both the Federal and several provincial governments have instituted savage cuts, unions in Ontario organized a one-day strike in the city of London, with further mobilizations to follow in other Ontario cities. It is just a beginning, but an important one. In this country, the conflict at the top of the AFL-CIO is a reflection of something happening at the bottom: the growing realization that since we have gained nothing from concessions and “labor peace,” we may as well try fighting.

Democratic Party electoralism has historically been the political counterpart of trade union bureaucracy and defeat. It’s high time to try independent political action by labor in alliance with the racial minorities and the oppressed.

ATC 60, January-February 1996