With Republicans controlling the presidency and both houses of
Congress for the first time since 1952, it might seem to be a gloomy
moment for progressive Democrats and their allies in the labor,
environmental, civil rights and other movements. But there is a
surprisingly strong sentiment that, besides playing defense, progressives
could score some political gains in the next few years.
There are several reasons for cautious optimism. Bush enters office
as a weak, wounded president, and Republican congressional control
is very slim, subject to Democratic filibuster in the Senate. To
win, Bush campaigned as a Clinton Republican, promising progress
on health care, education and other traditional Democratic issues.
Given that the majority of voters supported Gore or Nader, and the
even stronger majorities supporting progressive views on major social
and economic issues, if there is any mandate at all from the voters,
it is not for what has been the Republican agenda.
Bush will be under strong pressure to prove that he is a conciliator
who can get things
done. This creates an opportunity for progressives, who can shift
the terrain for any compromise to the left by demonstrating how Bush's
proposals serve big money interests and not the average American.
Since Bush will have to contend with a hard-right Republican leadership
in Congress, he could be either forced into fights with them, or else
have his claims to be a "compassionate conservative" exposed as a
fraud, making him politically vulnerable. Without a president as titular
party head, the left-leaning Democrats in Congress can also assert
The good-old-boys are back,
but Democrats can make the best of it.
Progressives differ on whether they think that much will be accomplished
legislatively, but they agree the best way for progressives to block
Bush, as well as to lay the groundwork for future political victories,
is to promote their issues clearly and aggressively, appealing to
a sympathetic public. "This election made clear the country doesn't
want a tax cut for the wealthy or to dismantle health care or Social
Security," says AFL-CIO public
policy director David Smith. "Of course, we will fight to hold the
line on these issues, but it would be an enormous mistake for progressives
to think that diving into the bunker is our only option. We also
have to press ahead on issues that the country cares about, especially
health care. I think we have room to make some progress."
Part of the battle will be defining what constitutes progress or
getting things done. "There will be an effort to pick off some Democrats,"
says Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois), a rising progressive leader
in the House. "If we let them define bipartisanship as a couple
of Democrats going their way, then shame on us. It's our role to
prevent that kind of rightward drift and make it clear in every
forum, including Democratic caucuses, to remind people who the Democratic
base is and who created this popular victory for Gore."
There's strong sentiment on the Democratic left that the party
needs to define itself more clearly in terms of its fundamental
values and philosophy, not just in terms of specific legislative
proposals or tactical positions to gain political advantage over
the Republicans. If Democrats stand for principles that people understand
and support, then some strategists think that they cannot only better
block unpalatable compromises with the Republican right, but ultimately
secure a stronger political position for future elections.
Yet this requires winning over or resisting conservatives in the
party, from the "blue dog" faction in Congress to the Democratic
Leadership Council. "The Democrats really need to be organized and
have a coherent plan that we can get people to unite behind, and
that ought to be our focus," says Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio),
the new leader of the Progressive Caucus. "It has to be forward-looking
and positive. It would be a mistake to lead a frontal assault on
Bush now. The real question is what do we stand for as the Democratic
Party. It's not just unity. There needs to be a lot of time and
attention paid to re-examining the philosophical basis of our party
and to define the social, economic and political pillars of the
Kucinich says the debate in Congress recently has been "more about
tactics than philosophy" on both sides, but "the answer to rank
partisanship is not a pantomime over bipartisanship." Although he
believes it's possible to find unity, some of the positions he is
currently proposing for the party--such as opposition to national
missile defense and nuclear disarmament-- will find strong opposition
on both sides of the aisle.
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Illinois) wants to reorient politics
to a debate over
fundamental human rights to such goals as health care, education and
a clean environment by proposing constitutional amendments guaranteeing
those rights. He sees bipartisan compromise between Republicans and
conservative Democrats as a major threat, reinforcing tendencies that
weaken the Democratic Party and fail to address critical issues. "Progressives
fundamentally must challenge not only Republicans, but this coalition
of Democrats that gives the impression that we're with the Republican
coalition on less taxes, vouchers, deregulation of the environment
and the free market approach to almost everything."
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. sees
bipartisan compromise between
Republicans and conservative Democrats as a major threat.
Progressives are intent on staking out positions that make it difficult
for Bush to muddy the differences on key issues, as he did so successfully
with education, a patient's bill of rights, prescription drug coverage
for seniors and other issues during the election. If Democrats make
the defining issue universal access to health care, Schakowsky says,
it will be harder for Bush to persuade people that Democrats and
Republicans are indistinguishable.
But Service Employees Union President
Andrew Stern, who represents many health care workers, says it may
be possible to pass a significant expansion of access to health
care short of universal coverage, partly because there's a growing
bipartisan view that work should offer more benefits--including
health insurance--and both parties promised to use the surplus to
expand health care. "We should focus on trying to win for our members
and not worry about 2002," Stern says.
Early battles may set the tone. If Sens. John McCain (R-Arizona)
and Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) push through their campaign finance
legislation, as they believe they can, then Bush will immediately
be put on the defensive. But if Bush can push issues that were blocked
only by a Clinton veto or veto threat, such as abolition of the
estate tax, then Democrats risk being deeply divided over an issue
that could otherwise be used to demonstrate how Bush is promoting
policies that unfairly help the super-rich.
If a recession hits, Bush has already made it clear that he will
use traditional Keynesian arguments to rationalize his proposed
$1.3 trillion tax cut. The progressive alternative should be public
investment both as a stimulus to the economy and to do needed work,
but the Democrats are ill-positioned for that argument after years
of claiming to be champion budget-balancers. "This is the Democrats'
most important vulnerability," argues Jeff Faux, president of the
Economic Policy Institute. "They
have become so unused to arguing for social investment. It will
be very difficult if the unemployment rate starts to rise very significantly,
and all they can talk about is maintaining the surplus for Social
Security in 2035. That's where Clinton and Gore led them. There
will be great pressure to find the lowest common denominator between
the New Democrats and progressives."
Ironically, with Clinton out of the White House, progressives may
be better positioned to resist fast-track trade negotiating authority
and to demand that global economic agreements protect the environment
and workers rights. Democrats who were loyal to the White House
now may be free to vote for a position that has wide popular support.
(Indeed, one even Clinton had started to embrace at the end of his
term, when the administration negotiated a bilateral trade agreement
with Jordan that included labor and environmental protections.)
Progressives will have virtually no influence on administrative
appointments and executive actions that Bush can take. Under the
circumstances, this is where the administration may do its greatest
early damage, stalling or reversing decisions made late in the Clinton
administration to protect the environment or set ergonomic standards
for workplaces. Clinton managed to make some progress despite a
Republican Congress through administrative guidelines, such as one
just issued that would permit the federal government to bar contractors
that repeatedly violate labor, environmental and other laws. Bush
can favor corporations in much the same way. "In the area of legislation,
we can hold our own to an extent because of the lack of a mandate
for Bush and the numbers of Democrats in the House and Senate,"
argues AFSCME President Gerald
McEntee. "But of real concern is the power of the executive branch,
whether in Health and Human Services, Education or other departments.
The president can write regulations and put into effect executive
orders and make appointments. The people who do the day-to-day business
that people so often don't see can have a lot of effect."
The key to any progressive strategy will be the ability to mobilize
citizen pressure on Congress, including the Democrats. Within the
Beltway, the pressures on Democratic leaders will be for compromise
and bipartisanship. "That's why we've got to not let these folks,
good as they are, to set the tone for us," argues Stewart Acuff,
assistant Midwest regional director of the AFL-CIO. "We have to
organize around what people need and want and what's just, instead
of organizing around what--as much as I love them--Dick Gephardt,
David Bonior or Tom Daschle think is viable."
While Sierra Club executive
director Carl Pope sees little hope for environmentalists under
a Bush administration, he says that it's crucial to change politics
over the next few years so that citizens will vote more on their
environmental and economic concerns and less on cultural issues.
In the short run, he expects tough defensive fights, especially
over Bush's proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
to oil and gas exploration. Yet for both the short and long run,
he says, "I never count on leadership from politicians. The public
will have to lead on this."
Some members of Congress will welcome such popular pressure, since
it can strengthen their hand. Schakowsky thinks Democrats can only
make headway by "building the progressive infrastructure and making
the progressive voice louder," strengthening their own institutions
in Congress and supportive citizens' groups like U.S.
Action. "One thing Democrats have not fully taken advantage
of is the opportunity to utilize and foster creation of grassroots
supporters," she says. "They've played too much of an inside-the-Beltway
As a result of the way Bush won this election, there's a reservoir
of anger, especially in the black community and in union circles,
and there is the potential for more popular discontent as the limits
of Bush's compassionate conservatism are revealed. If groups on
the left can mobilize supporters, and progressive Democrats in Congress
can keep their fractious party united around issues that are both
popular and populist, then the battle with the Bush administration
could lay the groundwork for decisive progressive political--and
eventually legislative and electoral--victories in the coming years.