| Published on Sunday, March 25, 2001 in the
Thank You, Mr. President, May I Have Another
by Robert Borosage
Democrats are clueless these days. They haven't recovered
since George W. Bush stole the election, and Republicans ended up in control
of the White House, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court. Their presidential
candidate, who won the most votes, has disappeared. Their former president
is hiding in disgrace somewhere between Harlem and Westchester, leaving only
for well-paid private gigs for corporate conventions. Senate Democrats
rolled over for Bush's Cabinet nominees, and both houses of Congress got
rolled by corporations pushing repeal of worker-safety provisions and
consumer-bankruptcy protections. No wonder Bill Clinton's former Labor
secretary, Robert B. Reich, has proclaimed the Democratic Party dead.
Can Democrats get their groove back? It won't be easy. Any
party deprived of the presidential bully pulpit has trouble speaking in one
voice, and for Democrats, unity violates the party's tradition, if not its
rules. With Democrats in minority status in both houses, Bush need not
traffic with their leaders. He can pick and choose among more pliable,
conservative Blue Dogs or New Democrats who are happy to deal. The loss of
the White House also means a devastating loss in research and policy
Moreover, despite the new president's continuing travails
with the English language, Democrats shouldn't, as Bush put it,
"misunderestimate him." This administration has mastered the ability to play
Bill Clinton's music while marching to Ronald Reagan's drummer. The
back-alley mugging of labor already underway is only the beginning of what
will be a bare-knuckled, no-holds-barred assault designed to weaken the
This reality renders the advice Democrats have been hearing
from pundits and pollsters virtually worthless. Americans, they've been
told, want an end to partisan bickering in Washington, and Democrats should
work to find common ground with Bush. "Internal consensus," they're told, is
essential for the party to speak with one voice. Democrats, it is argued,
can gain by being the responsible party, seeking bipartisan consensus,
offering a smaller tax cut, a more reasonable budget and greater fiscal
Nonsense. The only hope for Democrats is if their
progressive base leads the party into fierce opposition. For a play-book,
they'd be smart to remember what conservatives did in 1992, when Clinton was
elected and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.
From day one, movement conservatives outside Congress
declared open season on Clinton. They organized aggressive opposition
research, scouring the countryside and the past for anything that might
discredit him or throw the administration off its game.
Inside Congress, the conservative minority ignored
Republican leaders who called for bipartisan cooperation. While then-Senate
Minority Leader Bob Dole was endorsing the goal of universal health care,
conservatives were joining with health maintenance organizations and
insurance companies to plot its demise. Republicans voted unanimously
against Clinton's first budget plan, even though it was virtually a rewrite
of the bipartisan compromise signed by President George Bush years earlier.
Congressional conservatives, led by then-Rep. Newt Gingrich
(R-Ga.), put forth their own agenda. Gingrich rallied the Christian
Coalition and other radical-right groups to support tax cuts, deregulation,
an end to welfare and term limits, which eventually became provisions of his
1994 "contract with America."
Finally, supposedly moderate Republicans were put on notice:
If they strayed too often to vote with the administration or Democrats in
Congress, they could anticipate a well-funded primary challenge--even if
that risked losing a GOP seat in the general election. For the most part,
the moderates got the message. Party unity was forged not from the top down
in centrist compromise, but from the bottom up by right-wing muscle.
Progressives have every reason to learn from this playbook.
Bush has presented himself as more moderate than he is. Now he is running a
conservative takeover for which he has no mandate, endorsing policies--like
reinstating the "global gag rule" on family planning overseas--that come as
a shock even to some of his own supporters.
More important, Bush is paddling upstream against the tide
of opinion. Voters didn't buy the president's agenda in the election; Al
Gore's message and agenda were far more popular. Bush has no mandate for his
tax cuts for the wealthy, his stealth cuts in spending, the oil industry's
takeover of government, his rollback of women's right to choose or his
assault on working people.
No one objects to a little tax relief. But if Americans were
asked how to spend $555 billion over 10 years, they might choose to provide
the fifth child--the one in five children born into poverty--with a healthy
start. They might choose smaller classes and better teachers and modern
schools for their kids. They might choose to ensure that their parents could
afford the medicines that they need. But they would not make Bush's choice
and give the money to approximately 1.4 million households (the top 1%) that
are already among the wealthiest in the world.
For this argument to be joined, progressive groups outside
and inside Congress should get in Bush's face. He's allowed right-wing
zealots like Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' wife to vet his
appointees. They should be investigated, and the outrageous opposed and
blocked. No president selected by the gang of five on the Supreme Court has
a right to name more activist conservative justices to that court and pad
his partisan advantage for the next era.
Progressives need to build the research capacity to expose
the Bush administration for what it is, revealing its conflicts of
interests, corruption and greed that will stain it. They need to go into
campaign mode, to ensure that Americans learn exactly who is getting the
gold and who is getting the shaft. Finally, congressional progressives need
to put forth a bold agenda for economic growth, fair taxes, investment in
our future, political reform--and make Democrats the party that fights for
working people once again.
At the center of this debate will be the faltering economy
and Bush's wrong-headed tax plan. Democrats should stop defending the
Clinton economy and start working to fend off the Bush recession. This is an
argument about the direction of the country, not accounting. The question is
one of unmet needs and national priorities, not simply debt reduction.
Progressives must expose the cynical lie that Bush's tax
cut, most of which won't even kick in for several years, will stimulate the
economy. Instead of arguing for a slower process and a smaller tax cut,
progressives should be pushing for a bigger rebate now, one aimed at middle-
and low-income families, but one that won't explode in the out years. The
best policy would be to contrast Bush's backloaded, top-heavy tax cuts for
the rich with a one-year prosperity dividend of $500 for every man, woman
and child in America. That puts more money into the hands of middle- and
low-income Americans to kick-start the economy in the short term, won't
break the bank in the out years and doesn't steal from vital needs to hand
the wealthiest Americans an annual $40,000 tax break.
The first response of Republicans--and a shameless number of
Democrats--to the economic downturn was to pass legislation making it easier
for credit-card companies and other creditors to collect from distressed
families forced into bankruptcy. Progressives should be pushing legislation
to help distressed families avoid bankruptcy, financing a debt-relief
mechanism that gives families reeling from layoffs, illness or divorce a
chance to get back on their feet.
The talking classes decry such advice as poisonous
partisanship, certain to undermine civility, turn Americans off and drive
good people from public life. But Bush has made it clear he plans, without
any mandate, to pursue an audacious far-right makeover of the country. To
prevent that, fierce and unrelenting opposition is required. Good manners
may suffer, but the country will benefit. And Democrats may just get their
blood moving again.
Robert L. Borosage is a founder of the
the forthcoming book "The Next Agenda."
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times