Wayne O'Leary

Style Over Substance

Growing up in Massachusetts half a lifetime ago, I witnessed firsthand the career start of the commonwealth’s current senior senator, John Kerry. At the time, Kerry was already a media star, the result of his impressive public debut as head of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Regrettably, his subsequent years in politics speak volumes about the problems afflicting the Democratic Party of today. The first thing to know about the Bay State’s senior Democrat from the standpoint of his party’s long-term viability is that he shouldn’t have reached the U.S. Senate when he did, if at all.

In 1984, Kerry, then the freshly minted (1982) lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, defeated Jim Shannon, a highly regarded three-term congressman, in the Democratic Senate primary, gaining the right to run for the seat of the retiring Paul Tsongas. He went on to serve five terms (to date) and become his party’s presidential standard bearer in 2004.

Congressman Shannon, now out of elective politics, was everything a Democratic officeholder should aspire to be. A fighting liberal with an impeccable progressive record, he nevertheless lost to a political newcomer whose public profile was (except for his sterling antiwar record) essentially a blank slate. Shannon, despite his accomplishments, could not match Kerry’s celebrity and matinee-idol appeal.

Where the Kennedyesque Kerry was tall, handsome, and patrician in bearing, Shannon was a kind of Irish-Catholic Barney Frank, a rumpled, unstylish individual of unprepossessing appearance. Equally telling, he was a protégé of House Speaker Thomas P. (“Tip”) O’Neill, recently caricatured in TV ads by Reagan Republicans as the personification of the old-time urban pol and the symbol of suddenly unfashionable New Deal liberalism.

So Massachusetts primary voters opted for style over substance, choosing the “new” Democratic politics (economically conservative, socially liberal, interest group-based) over the old (economically liberal, programmatically social-democratic, working class-oriented) in what amounted to a subtle shift to the right. This is not to say that Shannon was prowar, or that Kerry opposed helping the disadvantaged; there was substantial ideological overlap in their respective positions. Nevertheless, except on social issues (civil and gay rights, feminism, etc.), Kerry has turned out to be considerably more conservative in office than Shannon would have been.

Writ large, this is the story of the Democratic Party over the last quarter-century. Prompted in part by the baneful influence of Reaganism and its paler version, Clintonism, in part by the desire to appear modern and up-to-date, Democrats have shed much of their Progressive-New Deal-Great Society inheritance and drifted steadily rightward. What was once a liberal, lower-middle class party antagonistic to corporate business is now a centrist, upper-middle class party sympathetic to corporate business.

John Kerry personifies the transition; his positions favoring free trade, globalization, a finance-based economy, and an expansive foreign policy define the modern Democratic Party. Perhaps most critical, his 2004 race for president, empty of ideological substance, paved the way for the centrist presidency of Barack Obama.

Obama has carried the evolution of the Democratic Party to its logical conclusion. Far from being a liberal in the tradition of FDR, Truman, JFK, and the domestic LBJ, Obama, building on the counter tradition of Carter and Clinton, is in essence a moderate Republican in drag. If there were any such thing these days as a moderate wing of the Republican Party, that would be his natural home. Two instances in late summer illustrated where Obama and the bulk of his party are presently positioned. First was the president’s chiding of his “friends” in the public-sector unions during his campaign-style bus tour of the Midwest.

Those labor friends were publicly scolded and advised to accept “reform” (presumably pay and benefit cuts) as the price of shared sacrifice — as if they have not been sacrificing already. This was in keeping with the modern Democratic Party’s despicable habit of kicking its liberal base for the edification of independent and Republican voters, an expression of the Clinton triangulation legacy. But far more important in the larger sense was the party’s overall reaction to the August stock-market swoon. When stocks started downward in the wake of the debt-ceiling deal and the Euro crisis, official Washington, Democrats included, went into full panic mode. There was suddenly a burr under the donkey’s saddle that was absent during the nearly three years of the rolling jobs-and-housing crisis.

Democratic lawmakers, their eyes betraying that deer-in-the-headlights look as they contemplated diminished stock portfolios and 401(k)s, went manic along with everyone else inside the Beltway. To hell with jobs; like saving the banks three years ago, it was imperative to save the stock market, which since the 1970s has come to determine the size of what are still euphemistically called “pensions” and (more importantly) holds the key to the wealth of the upper 10%, America’s most important constituency.

It was the reaction of a party that’s lost its bearings and reason for being, a party that’s bought into the right-wing proposition, repeated endlessly for a generation now, that only the market, freed of government encumbrances, can cure the economic woes created by the market. Democrats, every bit as much as Republicans, have permitted our well-being to be tied to the fortunes of Wall Street, not least by allowing market-based “defined-contribution” plans to become the basis for the nation’s private retirement system.

The upshot? Wall Street says it needs to see deficit and debt reduction to restore critical animal spirits. So it has to happen, even if that means shrinking those annoying entitlements, the sole source of retirement security for Americans lacking either investment accounts or what’s left of traditional pensions.

And who’s a prominent member of the congressional super committee charged with initially undertaking the job? Old friend John Kerry, the richest member of the US Senate and a very reluctant populist. He’ll have to be watched closely and pressured to the extent possible by his party’s remaining progressives.

In the longer run, after the 2012 election, there’s something else Democratic progressives will have to consider. Faced with an increasingly corporatized Democratic party, they’ll have to begin thinking the unthinkable: forming a progressive third party. As presently configured, the Democrats may simply be beyond salvaging.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He holds a doctorate in American history and is the author of two books.

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2011


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