The Center-Center Coalition

Against the Current, No. 66, January/February 1997

The Editors

“BIPARTISANSHIP” IS A quality highly admired and prized in U.S. politics, and by all indications we’re in for a substantial dose of it in the second Clinton-Gingrich term. Bipartisanship enjoys such a high reputation simply because it offers what establishment media commentators and economic elites like best, namely government policy based on no political principles whatever-not even the phantoms of principles that flit through Democratic and Republican party platforms-all the better to directly serve the interests of corporate capital.

The beauty of capitalist politics is that the ruling class can get on with the business of enriching itself without having to constantly shape details of government policy-a task for which it is poorly suited, given the competing short-term corporate interests and sheer greed of its constituent elements.  That job is left to parliamentary institutions, political parties and think tanks, all sharing a consensual view that identifies the “national interest” and “public good” with the needs of investors, bankers and shareholders, and hence of maximum corporate profit.

In official parlance, then, bipartisanship denotes “setting aside partisan politics for the public good.”  For working people and especially the working poor, for the African American and other communities of color, bipartisanship means the two parties working together to screw the population.  That’s a big part of what the coming four years portend.

We’ve already seen what bipartisanship can accomplish in the field of welfare reform.  Now plans are afoot to “fix” the medicare and social security funds.  A brief look at the social security “crisis” illustrates the shape of things to come. The “crisis” is that money in the Social Security trust fund will increase for only another 20 years, and is projected to run out 33 years from now with the retirement of the `baby boom’ generation.

Since this matter obviously required emergency attention, an Advisory Council on Social Security was duly established to examine it. The Council, perhaps deficient in bipartisan spirit, failed to produce a unified proposal but divided into three camps, each with its own plan. Two of these propose sharply reduced social security benefits and their replacement by “mandatory savings accounts” (either 40% of current payroll taxes or 1.6% of a worker’s earnings) to be invested in the stock market.  (See New York Times, Sunday, December 8, 1996; A1)

These fantastic schemes would, in essence, privatize social security-with the added benefit of placing trillions of new dollars into the hands of mutual fund managers and financial consultants.  (A third group on the Advisory Council, which includes a number of International union leaders and a specialist in women’s pension rights, opposes mandatory savings accounts but suggests studying the possibility of investing 40% of Social Security funds in stock markets.  At present the funds are invested by law only in U.S. government securities.)

Privatization would reduce the guaranteed portion of social security to rock-bottom levels, with the rest dependent on the success of an individual worker’s “investment strategy.”  In the longer run, even worse, we can envision the conversion of entitlement programs to means-tested benefits, i.e. a form of welfare-and we already know what can be done with that. Who knows, someday we may enjoy the kind of social paradise where seventy-year-old retirees “earn” their social security checks by working minimum-wage jobs cleaning hospitals and subways .  .  .

But there’s more immediate bipartisan business to transact as we build our Bridge to the Twenty-First Century.  Take, for example, the urgent issue of campaign finance reform, a top-priority matter for several reasons, as everyone agrees, notably the need to curb the appalling political power of-organized labor.

The AFL-CIO spent $35 million on the reelection of President Clinton (which would have occurred anyway if labor hadn’t dropped a dime on him) and on trying to dump seventy-two freshman congressional Republicans, of whom fewer than twenty actually lost-giving the labor leadership the batting average of a mediocre utility infielder.  Union leaders, however, claimed victory for having increased the weight of union household voters (who made up 23% of voters in 1996 as opposed to 14% in 1994), for the fact that these voters backed Clinton 2-1 over Dole, and for a number of local and state election victories.  (“Workers Send a Message,” “Solidarity” (UAW), November 1996; 11)

It’s exhilarating and at the same time depressing to consider what the political energy and resources of the unions might accomplish if exerted for labor’s own candidates and causes, rather than wasted on Democrats.  We can expect, in any case, that union campaign spending will be a prime target when Congress and the Pres crack down on “soft money.”

Corporations, to be sure, spent seven times as much in “soft money” as the unions.  Then there’s all the spending by the religious right, notably the Christian Coalition.  Yet it is quite possible that legislation will be introduced specifically to restrict union spending.  Perhaps Democrats, the beneficiary of union campaign financing, would vote for such prohibitions-possibly as part of a backroom deal to keep the heads of the Democratic National Committee, fundraiser John Huang and all the others he might implicate from criminal charges in connection with massive illegal contributions from the Indonesian dictatorship and other foreign benefactors.

All this will be a fine way to repay the labor leadership for their loyalty.  Yet it would be uncharitable and false to accuse Bill Clinton of betraying the labor leaders who worked so hard for him. For one thing, he promised them nothing; for another, they made no demands on him. (In some ways, this is actually the most incredible fact of the 1996 campaign.)

Selfless and statesmanlike action to advance the public good, however, is only one side of second-Clinton-term-era bipartisanship.  The other side, existing right alongside all the symbols of cooperation, is a remarkable level of viciousness and backstabbing, which is likely to continue if not even escalate.  This is a logical development as the competition between the ruling class parties shifts ever further from fundamentals of policy to fights over symbolism (God, family, marriage, law and order, drugs) and the vilification of hated personalities (Hilary, Newt).

Certainly there’s no shortage of raw sewage to fuel this kind of politics.  Both of the Clintons, Gingrich and a host of their underlings are impeachable and/or indictable for assorted financial manipulations and coverups.  Yet it is most likely that none of the numerous investigations will go to quite that length, because of the balance of blackmail and counter-blackmail-and more fundamentally, because corporate elites have no interest in political instability.  There will be, then, plenty of sleaze old and new, real and imagined, to keep all the talk shows humming, but probably not to generate a real crisis.

Predictably, the one real scandal for which a great many officials should be proceeding directly to jail, or a war crimes tribunal, is the target of a truly bipartisan coverup: the CIA’s drug-trade-for-contra-money operations in Central America and LA. It’s truly remarkable how much mainstream media energy is being expended not to pursue the story, but to discredit the courageous reporting in the “San Jose Mercury-News” which uncovered it.

Much ink is wasted, for example, on the trivial question of whether the CIA-contra connection was the first introduction of crack cocaine into South Central Los Angeles, or whether this community was specifically targeted by a conspiracy -probably not, and why does it matter anyway?-rather than looking at the full scope of the contra-drug operations of the Oliver North era. Here again we see the spirit of bipartisanship at work, since a broader investigation would reveal not only the criminal operations of two Republican administrations, but the probable involvement of a certain Democratic governor of Arkansas at the time .  .  .

Predictable Results

The prospect following the election, in short, is a “center- center coalition” that may produce nostalgia for old- fashioned gridlock.  Slightly over half the eligible electorate, including the large bulk of a potential constituency for the left, didn’t vote. Those who did fell into two rough groups: Prosperous and secure-feeling people were inclined to favor a “moderate” kind of Republican administration, and since there was already one in power (aside from irrelevant party labeling) they divided their votes between Dole and Clinton.

Organized workers, African-American and Latino voters on the other hand voted massively for Clinton precisely because they were afraid of a Republican White House.  In these circumstances, the results of the one nationally organized populist alternative-the campaign of Ralph Nader and the Greens-must be seen as a modest but genuine success.

It is rather remarkable that with a virtually unfunded campaign and a candidate who, to put it mildly, was reluctant to campaign vigorously, Nader drew 581,000 votes (explicitly socialist candidates drew a combined total of 70,000), about one percent of the national vote. He outpolled Ross Perot in Washington D.C. and received 4.1% in Oregon; his campaign achieved ballot status for Green parties in Connecticut, Nevada, Vermont, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia.

In no way would we claim this to be a breakthrough for independent politics; it is, however, a respectable showing that demonstrates the potential for building a mass-based independent political party that would genuinely reflect the interests of the working class and oppressed majority-“if” the weight of the labor and African-American movements were behind it.

More immediately the result of the Congressional elections, producing a somewhat more moderate and narrower Republican majority in the House of Representatives, is to be sure a partial defeat for the “Republican Revolution” of 1994.  Not coincidentally, one never heard the three words “Contract With America” during the Republican campaign (just as you never heard a Democrat utter the phrase “universal health care”).  The right wing does not have the popular momentum it imagined.

Yet this result, and a more right-wing Senate, also releases Clinton from whatever shreds of commitments he may have implied-or more accurately, were implied on his behalf by the pathetic liberal wing of the Democratic Party.  Chief among these was the promise to “fix” the welfare reform bill, which shamefully enough was peddled by liberals and civil rights leaders who knew that Clinton would at most restore some medical services to legal immigrants and wouldn’t even risk a serious political fight even for that. (One more “fix,” and the poor are likely to be required to submit to public whipping to receive benefits.)

In these circumstances, the clear imperative for the left in the labor and social movements must be the construction of resistance today and an authentic independent political alternative tomorrow.

ATC 66, January-February 1997