As George W. Bush rolls out his agenda in the form of detailed
legislative proposals, it becomes clearer that we are heading for
a major ideological battle in Washington. On the one hand, we have
a conservative program of immense tax cuts for the wealthy and a
massive increase in military funding. The net effect will be a return
to huge federal deficits and a draconian decrease in social services.
On the other hand, progressives will push for an increase in these
social services and will attempt to strengthen the social contract.
In elemental terms this will be a conflict between a "tax cut and
spend" philosophy and a "tax and spend" philosophy.
Interestingly, neither Republicans nor Democrats question that
we will have an increase in the military budget––they merely argue
about its size and what it will be used for. In the 2000 presidential
campaign, Al Gore actually proposed a larger increase in
military spending than Bush. Only Ralph Nader had the temerity to
suggest that we should actually decrease military spending.
Democrats have abandoned talk about the peace dividend. Outside
of the comments of a few hearty Congress members like Dennis
Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Barbara
Lee (D-California), the concept isn't mentioned. Yet recent
polls indicate that Americans are not all that enamored with either
a big tax cut for the rich or a massive military buildup. So a viable
alternative would appear to be: cut the military budget, use these
funds to strengthen the social contract, and give everyone but the
rich a tax cut. This would move Democrats away from the "tax and
spend" opprobrium to a more appealing "cut taxes and reduce overall
So what keeps this from happening? Why can't there be a peace dividend?
If you ask longtime Washington observers, they typically respond
in one of three ways. It's the fault of the peace movement, which
has gotten old and tired; it's the fault of Clinton and the Democratic
Leadership Council who, in an effort to capture independent and
Republican voters, embraced the conservative defense philosophy
("mine is bigger than yours"); or it's the fault of the entire Democratic
Party, which has positioned itself as pro-defense in an effort to
lure back white male voters.
Each of these responses makes sense--superficially. But looking
closer at the conventional explanations, they raise more questions
than they answer. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the peace
movement hasn't gotten a lot of press attention or generated a lot
of excitement. However, the basic point made at the end of the Cold
War--that there is no good reason not to spend less on defense and
divert this spending to social services--was valid then and remains
While Clinton and the DLC certainly have moved the Democratic Party
to the right and have embraced the Republican defense posture, many
progressive Democrats question our continuing need to spend as if
those "Russkies" were knocking on our door. Why do these Democrats
speak so softly?
Finally, if the stealth Democratic strategy is to embrace defense
spending in order to lure back white male voters ("Look! We're tough
on Communism! We support our armed forces!"), it's not working.
In the last presidential election, Democrats lost the white male
vote across the board, a repeat of what has happened for the past
So other factors must be sought to explain why the campaign for
the peace dividend has diminished. We need to understand what these
are before we can stand toe-to-toe with Bush and the conservative
onslaught--a confrontation that will require building the strongest
possible case for the peace dividend.
In this spirit, I would like to suggest that Democrats and progressives
have lost the campaign for the peace dividend because they have
also lost the campaign for family values. These seemingly separate
subjects are connected in a way that cuts below the superficial
analysis of the Beltway pundits.
Brace yourselves for my next column--[email protected]