Heading for the Center

by Jim Cullen


Progressive populists who came to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago looking for a floor debate on corporate power were bound to be as disappointed and frustrated as those who watched President Clinton sign the welfare repeal act. As corporate sponsors looked down approvingly from their skybox suites in the United Center, speakers at the convention podium generally were occupied with extolling Bill Clinton, defending the First Lady and blasting the excesses of the Republican 104th Congress.

Political conventions are not designed to promote discussion. Debate is a product of conflict, which the conventions have been engineered to avoid ever since the disastrous 1968 Democratic riots. Conventions are designed to nominate candidates and give them a head of steam heading into the election.

Although there was some grumbling about the welfare bill and other capitulations to the right, this was not the place for progressive Democrats to make their stand. They were crippled two years ago, when they let Congress fall into Republican hands. Then, after Bill Clinton steered to the middle and co-opted many of the Republicans' themes, progressives failed to challenge him in the primaries. That meant there would be no serious debate about the rightward turn of the Democratic Party. And, considering the alternative of Bob Dole in the White House signing every bill that Newt Gingrich sends him, many Democratic activists were happy with the double-digit lead that Clinton has held all summer, just two years after the Democrats looked like road kill.

Two weeks earlier, the Republicans had showed as little conflict on their convention floor. Pat Buchanan, for all his brave talk on the campaign trail, never got to stir the bile at the GOP convention. He settled for a floor pass, but at least he got a platform dictated by the Christian Coalition whose social issues he could embrace, even if it ignored his economic populism.

Any substantive discussion by Democrats was likely to occur away from the convention center. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, one of the few Cabinet members who has been willing to suggest that corporate bosses should be held responsible for the welfare of their workers, spoke at a luncheon sponsored by Democrats 2000, a group that seeks to promote economically progressive candidates and working-people issues.

"Unemployment is down and jobs are up. But there are still miles to go," Reich said. "The only way we can continue to build jobs and grow the economy is investing in our people - the most precious resource we have - with education, job skills, and we also need strong unions ... and health care," he said, drawing applause.

Securing worker pensions will be a major focus of a second Clinton administration, Reich added, but the private sector also has a responsibility to see that workers get opportunities. "If we are going to ... reduce the budget deficit by balancing the budget, if we are going to get to a point where government has to do less, the private sector has to do more. That is necessary," he said, citing examples of business and government cooperation in Chicago, Detroit and East Los Angeles that train school dropouts for job skills.

"No handouts, but the first Democratic principal is if you want to work hard you should be able to get out of poverty and get a job. There is no better anti-poverty policy than a job - a good job. And the private sector is going to have to rise along with the public sector to meet this challenge," he said.

"With regard to welfare reform, it was the private sector that kept on saying 'The welfare system is a mess, we've got to clean it up.' Well, business, it's now your turn to pitch in and help clean it up.

"How will we pay for these federal programs that are going to be necessary to help poor people get into work? There is one way to pay for it: to cut corporate welfare," he said, again to applause. "What we have here is perfect symmetry. If you want to pay to help people get from welfare to work, how better to do it than to end corporate welfare as we know it? Put an end to Aid to Dependent Corporations."

Reich said the Clinton administration cut $42 billion in corporate welfare in the 1997 budget and is requiring companies to fully fund their pension plans. "We're telling them, 'You're not going to be able to turn to the taxpayers for a bailout like you did with the savings and loan bailout,' " he said.

"And I don't mean by these remarks to in any way imply that companies are bad. ... A lot of companies are treating their workers as assets. They are good corporate citizens. We mean to ask other companies also to be good corporate citizens. Why should the companies that are already great corporate citizens stand at a disadvantage with regards to others that are cutting corners?"

For example, he said, after major retailers declined to cooperate with a Labor Department crackdown on sweatshops, the agency has started tracing invoices and naming retailers who are supplied by shops that pay their workers less than the minimum wage or have unhealthy and unsafe workplaces. "It's amazing how much cooperation we start to get from major American retailers who at one time were not very cooperative. They are coming around," he said.

"We need to have sticks and carrots. ... Part of the answer is jawboning, using that big stick and every kind of celebratory carrot we can, also taking away corporate welfare and making corporations stand on their own, and establishing in this country an ethic not just that demands of people work ... but an ethic that confirms our basic principle: ... Not only do individuals have responsibilities and stand on their own two feet, but companies and the public sector must work together to create the opportunities to enable anybody who is willing to work hard to have a good job that pays well."

In closing, he said, "We live not just in an economy. What binds us together are not just transactions. We live in a society in which we're members and we have rights and responsibilities and duties toward one another.... That is what democracy is about, that is what the Democratic Party is about, that is what Bill Clinton is about and that is where we need to go as a nation to restore the American dream to millions and millions of our fellow countrymen."

James Carville, Clinton's political adviser, who also spoke at the Democrats 2000 lunch, said the Democrats got rolled in 1994 but they would not let it happen again. "We can score just like Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed can score," he said, noting that the Democrats passed Medicare in 1966 while "the current Republican nominee [Dole] said he was proud to be one of 12 people who voted against Medicare." Now the only positive health statistic the United States leads the world in is life expectancy over 65, he said, crediting the national health care program for the elderly. Carville also noted that the top five administrations for job creation since World War II were all Democratic. "America does better when we invest and believe and give people hope," he said.

Michael Hudson, vice president of People For the American Way, briefed party activists on how to win against the extreme right wing. Now that the Christian Coalition has consolidated its hold on the Republican Party, he warned, they plan to move on the Democratic Party. "The whole arena has been shifted to the right since the Christian Coalition has moved into power with its grassroots movement. They've outorganized us, especially the last six years or so. We have to recognize that and if we're going to come back we have to get out and organize too," he said.

While the Christian Coalition took a low profile at the Republican convention, Hudson said it still "controlled the convention, lock, stock and barrel. The right wing helped orchestrate those few days on TV and it was the most sophisticated demonstration of power and discipline I've seen in that movement. They've set their eyes on the prize, as Jesse Jackson would say. One moderate Republican women said the moderates were treated nicer than they had been at the previous convention and, as she said, 'When they're strong enough to be nice, they're really in control.' "

In attempting to thwart the Christian Coalition, strategists try to reach voters who on average spend less than 5 minutes attention to politics a year, said Jennifer Sosin of Lake Research, which works with People For the American Way. "Our biggest challenge is talking to voters about phenomena they're not familiar with," she said. Focus groups reported the Christian Coalition and the "religious right" sound like good things, and people associate the "radical right" with militias, not religious activists. The pollsters finally came up with the term "religious political extremists" to convey the image of a group that wanted to impose its conservative moral values on everyone.

"If we attack [the Christian Coalition] without attaching an explanation of what we're talking about, we're attacking something people like," she said. "But the separation of church and state is deeply embedded ... and we need to make it clear that's what we're talking about."

Among the groups most likely to be attracted to the Christian Coalition are white moderate-to-conservative Democrats, particularly older, less-educated women. "But they also don't like extremism and groups that are divisive," she said. Another group the Christian Coalition is going after are the "Perot" voters. And the Christian Coalition's language, with its emphasis on family and faith, is "very appealing to African Americans," she said.

Rev. Tim McDonald, a black Baptist pastor and People For the American Way board member from Atlanta, agreed that the Christian Coalition is going after black churchgoers. "They've put forth a concerted effort to organize African Americans on the issues of abortion, homosexuality and public education vouchers, because they know there's division [in those areas]." He added, "They're also infiltrating the Hispanic churches with the voucher issue because that has a lot of appeal among Catholics, but thank God in Atlanta the archbishop said 'If it hurts one black child in public school I can't support [private school vouchers].' "

Of the Christian Coalition, he said, "They're not pro-life; they're pro-birth. They don't care nothing about feeding, educating and housing that child. We've got to carry that fight to them and make clear that we're talking about life from the cradle to the grave." He added that he had seen a sign on a Chicago street that said "Abortion is child abuse." McDonald noted, "Well so is cutting school lunches, vouchers and cutting back education grants."

In the next two months, he said, "We've got to be about truth-telling and we can't be timid and shy, because they're not timid and shy about getting out their message. We need to send back to the White House at least somebody who's concerned about the poor, the elderly, children and the locked-out."

Jill Hanauer of the Interfaith Alliance, which in two years has spread to 109 churches in 36 states, seeks to organize mainstream churches to counter the Christian Coalition extremists, suggested that moderates adopt the Interfaith Alliance tactic of challenging candidates to pledge civility in the campaigns. They also ask potential voters to affirm the positive role religion plays in American life and pledge to vote. "We've done it in Washington and Iowa and it works," she said. "America didn't turn to the right in 1994; they just didn't go to the polls."

The AFL-CIO is pouring massive resources into this election in an effort to re-establish itself as a political force two years after it lost congressional battles over free trade and then watched the Democrats lose Congress. Steve Rosenthal, the labor federation's political director, noted that Republicans won 53 seats in 1994 with the votes of nearly 40 percent of union households. Of the 73 freshmen House Republicans, 40 percent scored a zero on labor issues. Democrats need to win back only 19 seats this year to regain control of the House and union leaders will do what they can to achieve that.

"They divided us on guns, abortion, gays and immigration - there's always something other than workplace security and jobs," Rosenthal said of 1994. "And the White House message was that things were doing pretty good and they couldn't understand why people were angry."

For example, in southern Ohio's 6th District, with 41,000 union members, Republican Frank Cremeans was elected by 3,402 votes - easily within the margin of the union vote. And Cremeans voted 93% with Gingrich.

This time the AFL-CIO has 135 field coordinators loaned from international unions, as well as six coordinators who will seek to neutralize the Christian Coalition in North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Washington, Oregon and Colorado. The federation will be targeting 84 congressional districts and eight Senate races. But their jobs will be complicated by the independent spirit of today's unionists, who won't pull the lever for the union slate card as they might have in the past.

"Our members don't want us to tell them who to vote for. They want information so they can decide for themselves," Rosenthal said. That's one reason the AFL-CIO placed a one-time assessment of $1.80 on each member to raise $35 million for an ad campaign to take working-class issues to the Republican incumbents. "We're not going to let them talk about the wedge issues. We're going to make them talk about issues we care about," Rosenthal said.

The approach was successful in the special Senate election in Oregon this past December, where union members voted at a rate 11% higher than the general public and Democrat Ron Wyden was narrowly elected to Republican Bob Packwood's old seat. It also was credited with helping turn a number of House Republicans to support the minimum wage increase this summer.

A recent poll conducted for the AFL-CIO found that 62% of union members support Clinton, 22% support Dole and approximately 6% support Perot. In Congressional races, the rank and file prefer Democrats to Republicans by 46 to 24 percent.

Ann Richards told "Women Win '96" that the Republican convention reminded her of the plot to the old movie, Gaslight, where a man tries to drive a woman insane by convincing her that what she saw was not there and what she remembered was not true.

"I thought we were the ones who were trying to forget the 1994 election, but [the Republicans] pulled it off," she said. "Contract with America? Never heard of it. Bob Dole spending 35 years in Washington, D.C.? Never happened. Pat Buchanan? Never saw him. Dick Armey? Figment of your imagination. Jesse Helms? Didn't he retire? Newt Gingrich's sister got more coverage than he did and when Newt finally got to the microphone at the podium, what does he talk about? Beach volleyball! Give me a break!"

She reminded the delegates that it was vital that women get out to vote. "It's not always that good things happen when good people vote, but you can bank it that bad things happen when good people don't vote. We have this Republican Congress to prove it. They were successful because women did not vote two years ago. And what happens? We have a majority in Congress that tells poor women that families fell apart and the country went to hell because they stayed home with their kids instead of going to work. And then they tell middle-class women that the families fell apart and the country went to hell because they went to work and didn't stay home with their children. Not since Adam said 'Eve made me do it' have women taken the rap for so many of the world's problems and we're not going to put up with it any more."

Even the protests, with the Chicago cops on their best behavior, seemed half-hearted. On the second evening of the Democratic convention the parking lot assigned for protests offered a few pamphleteers and a group of Teamster psychologists who are seeking a contract with the Cook County district courts. Later a group of Native Americans showed up to demand freedom for Leonard Peltier. Later, a group of protesters reportedly tried to enter the convention center's security perimeter and was stopped by rows of police, both mounted and on foot.

On the final night, Dr. Ellen Mason, an obstetrician at the Cook County Hospital, was behind a barricade with others from Physicians for a National Health Program, passing out pamphlets to delegates. "I really hope these people don't throw these away," she said. "When Hillary made her speech, she said [health care] should be affordable, but that begs the question when a lot of people don't have money at all for health insurance. And the middle class is feeling the effect as well as low-income people. They're starting to wonder what health care means? Having to put your telephone on redial until you finally get a nurse who tells you if you can come in and see a doctor? Managed care is designed to keep people from getting health care. Physicians can't do what they need to do because it costs money."

As the evening session drew near and more delegates passed her by on their way to the convention center, where Clinton was scheduled to accept renomination, she was asked what it would take for people to demand national health care. "Bad care - and it's happening right now. People having to wait a week to have a broken arm set. Or having to drive 30 miles away to the nearest available clinic or emergency room. That's what happened to my partner's mother in Florida who broke her arm and she was told the doctor could not see her for a week. A broken arm, and she was supposed to let it go for a week before having it set! She finally had to go to an emergency room 30 miles away. It's happening right now."

The Chicago convention showed that the Democratic organizers have picked up a few tricks after years of watching Republican "feel-good" pep rallies. This time the faithful Democratic delegates cheered lustily as Clinton pledged to build all those bridges and the balloons and glitter fell.

Commentators credited Dick Morris' centrist strategy with bringing Clinton back from the dead, although Jesse Jackson noted that it was when Clinton rejected Morris' advice and held fast against Republican attempts to slash Medicare, education and environmental protection that the president's popularity began to improve. "The president, rejecting the advice of Morris and other conservatives that he cut a deal with Gingrich, decided to fight. He vetoed the Republican onslaught, standing firm even as they shut down the government. Subsequently, Clinton's popularity rose and Gingrich's continued to fall. As the president fought, he grew ever more popular - even as he reaffirmed affirmative action and vetoed two mean-spirited welfare bills and the restriction on late-term abortions," Jackson noted, adding that Clinton's lead in the polls actually shrank after he surrendered on welfare.

Liberals cling to the hope that a Democratic Congress would make things better. But winning back Congress for the Democrats was almost an afterthought for Clinton, who mentioned it once in his acceptance speech. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle had been relegated to non-primetime speaking roles and there were complaints that the Clinton's fundraising was drying up potential contributors to congressional candidates.

Elliott Naishtat, a Texas state representative from Austin, acknowledged that progressive Democrats are disappointed over the welfare bill, but he added, "Jesse [Jackson] said it better, that this is a democracy and we feel free to stand up and criticize, but if we don't re-elect Clinton we'll have no chance to fix the bill."

Although he respects what Ralph Nader, in his Green Party candidacy for President, is trying to do, Naishtat does not think progressives can risk diverting their votes from the Democrats in this election. "If I didn't think it was so important to re-elect Bill Clinton I wouldn't be critical of Nader," Naishtat said. "I think the election is going to be so close, that I'm afraid if good people and concerned people who are critical of the Democrats vote for Ralph Nader it could cause Bill Clinton to lose. And I know as a legislator that sometimes you have to make certain compromises so that you can improve a bad bill."

Susan Pamprin, a delegate from Davenport, Iowa, and an employee of the Rock Island Arsenal, acknowledged that many Democrats are upset with Clinton. "But people think they're not going to let this cause a disruption, because it would be political suicide. The alternative is a Republican president who's definitely not going to help the situation."

Pauline Mouton, a delegate and longtime political organizer in the black community of Beaumont, Texas, said Jesse Jackson's explanation may help African-American voters overcome their disappointment with Clinton. "What other alternative do we have? We really have to work hard to get Democrats in the majority in Congress."

Contact Democrats 2000 at 202-626-5620; the AFL-CIO at 202-637-5000; Interfaith Alliance at 202-639-6370; People for the American Way Action Fund at 303-499-7026; and Physicians for a National Health Program at 202-543-0706.

Next month: Prospects for Congress

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