In this era of eternal electioneering, the purpose of a presidential
administration's first term can be summed up succinctly: to secure
a second term.
George W. Bush and Dick Cheney fully understand this principle.
The current executive team is, after all, the first in 112 years
to occupy the White House after losing the popular vote. In 2004,
Bush and Cheney are determined to actually win the election. To
that end, Bush's political team is paying inordinate attention to
a set of numbers with which most Americans, even most progressives,
While organized labor has struggled to increase the percentage
of American workers who carry a union card in recent years, it has
been highly successful in increasing the percentage of American
voters who identify with the labor movement. Indeed, this could
well be organized labor's most dramatic success story of the past
decade. In 1992, according to Voter News Service, only 19 percent
of voters identified themselves as members of union households.
In 1996, that figure rose to 23 percent. In 2000, it was 26 percent.
Since overall voter turnout was roughly the same between 1996 and
2000, that means that an additional 2.5 million union workers and
members of their families cast ballots last year.
A Peter Hart Research Associates poll found that the Democrats
prevailed over Bush nationally by a 63 to 32 percent margin among
such voters. Critically, union votes closed the deal for Al Gore
in vital battleground states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and
Michigan--with a staggering 42 percent of the electorate wearing
the union label in the latter. Were it not for the intervention
of the Supreme Court, union votes certainly would have been credited
with helping to deliver Florida--and the presidency--to Gore.
All other things being equal, if organized labor simply continues
to up the percentage of "union-household" votes at the same rate
as it did during the '90s--and if those votes continue to trend
Democratic at roughly the same clip--Bush will be finished in 2004.
"It's clear that [in the 2000 election] union members exercised
the unmatched power we hold as a united political force in this
nation," says AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. "We're building a
solidarity and culture of mobilization that will last, and we're
going to build it even more."
The Bush political operation--easily the most sophisticated ever
constructed within the White House--may not be able to prevent the
mobilization. But it is determined to undermine its solidity. Working
with models from the re-election campaigns of Richard Nixon and
Ronald Reagan, Bush political strategist Karl Rove is seeking to
drive a wedge between blue-collar trade union members and environmentalists.
The Bush political team is using a predictable lure: the promise
of new jobs.
At a closed-door meeting on May 14 between Vice President Dick
Cheney, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and leaders of 23 unions--mostly
from the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department--Cheney
offered plenty for labor to get excited about. The Bush energy plan,
he claimed, would include schemes to build up to 1,900 new power
plants and 18,000 miles of fuel pipelines over the next two decades.
According to the calculations favored by the Bush team, each new
power plant would create 1,000 construction jobs and 200 permanent
jobs, while every 1,000 miles of pipeline is good for another 5,000
jobs. And that doesn't even count the boom Cheney promised if the
administration's dream of resurrecting the nuclear power industry
White House aides saw the meeting as more than an energy policy
briefing, however. For them, it was a high-stakes political overture
with significant portents for the 2004 race. Hence, the presence
of Rove, who performed introductions and reminded the union crowd
that Cheney held an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
union card when he worked summers as a utility company lineman in
Wyoming. Cheney's official duty was to explain the administration's
energy policy to leaders of the Teamsters, Steelworkers, Plumbers,
Carpenters, Laborers, Steam Fitters and Seafarers unions. Unofficially,
he was implementing a meticulous strategy aimed at dividing the
If Washington reporters tended to miss that aspect of the story,
Phil Clapp, the savvy president of the National Environmental Trust,
did not. "The administration is trying to split the Democrats by
wooing labor," Clapp said after the meeting. "It's quite an obvious
And quite a successful one, if comments from some labor leaders
who attended the meeting are any measure. "We like a lot of things,"
said Teamsters President James Hoffa. "We believe we need more nuclear
plants. We believe we need more refining capacity; we haven't been
building refineries." (Already, the Teamsters and Laborers have
broken ranks to endorse Bush's proposal to open the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration.)
There was appropriate skepticism about the administration's proposals.
Union leaders sought but did not receive a commitment that jobs
created under the Bush plan would go to unionized workers, or that
essential materials--such as steel--would be produced in U.S. plants.
Hoffa expressed concern about the Bush administration's ties to
oil corporations--and about the prospect that the president's energy
plan might ultimately do more to enrich big oil than workers and
consumers. When all was said and done, however, Hoffa released a
statement saying the Bush plan could create 25,000 Teamsters jobs
in Alaska, and thousands more in other parts of the country. "The
creation of jobs for Teamsters members can make strange bedfellows,"
he said, "but it's a bed we will lie in to keep our members working."
Cheney and Rove were particularly pleased with the praise their
plan received from Douglas McCarron, president of the 500,000-member
United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. The Carpenters recently
quit the AFL-CIO, with union Secretary-Treasurer Andris Silins saying
at the time, "The AFL-CIO has strayed to social and environmental
issues that have nothing to do with getting better wages and working
conditions for working people."
That may just sound like internal union bickering. But to the Bush
team, that is the sweet sound of a crack opening in a traditional
Democratic coalition. They know the sound well. They've heard it
In the early '70s, Nixon borrowed a page from George Wallace and
used racially charged talk about crime and school busing to pull
southern Democrats and urban white ethnics from the north into his
"silent majority." Reagan used culture-war appeals on issues such
as abortion and gay rights to turn white, working-class Catholics
from Cleveland and Pittsburgh into "Reagan Democrats." First elected
in tightly contested races, Nixon and Reagan surged to second terms
on the strength of millions of votes from traditionally Democratic
union households. In 1984, when the AFL-CIO strongly supported Democrat
Walter Mondale, exit polls showed that Reagan won 46 percent of
the union household vote to Mondale's 53 percent.
A major outreach to the leadership of key blue-collar unions and,
by extension, to their millions of members is critical to replicating
the Nixon and Reagan strategies. Besides efforts to find common
ground with building trades and maritime unions on issues of job
creation, the White House is actively seeking the support of the
Machinists union for its National Nuclear Defense scheme--a.k.a.
"Star Wars"--and the union has praised key aspects of the initiative.
The strategy of pitting the Bush administration's job promises
against Democratic concerns for the environment and nuclear disarmament
is a smart one for the president. "It's worked before," says Wisconsin
Secretary of State Douglas LaFollette, a Democrat with a long history
of environmental activism. "When I was in the state Senate back
in the '70s, I had a 100 percent AFL-CIO voting record. But I had
a lot of run-ins with my friends in the labor movement because they
were continually told by the Republicans that there was no way to
reconcile jobs and the environment. I had really hoped we had gotten
beyond the old divide-and-conquer approach. But it's no surprise
to me that Bush--who is so anti-environment--would stir it up again."
The Bush initiative is clearly a threat to the long-term prospects
of the "Teamsters and Turtles" coalition of trade unionists and
environmentalists forged in the 1999 Seattle protests against the
World Trade Organization. The coalition played a big role in lobbying
against permanent most-favored-nation trading status for China and
is poised to be a prime player in the fight against Bush's efforts
to win the "fast track" negotiating authority he would use to build
a Free Trade Area of the Americas. (Indeed, few union leaders have
lambasted Bush more loudly on the FTAA than Hoffa.)
To a greater extent than ever before, the AFL-CIO leadership has
built working relationships with organizations the labor movement
once kept at arm's length--especially environmental groups such
as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth. With early assaults
on ergonomic rules, arsenic restrictions and dozens of other priorities
of both the labor and environmental movements, the Bush administration
has done more than enough to keep leaders of the two movements working
But Rove and his crew don't expect union leaders to start appearing
on Republican podiums anytime soon. Their goals are far more modest:
If they can foster dissent between labor and environmental groups
on job-creation issues, and if they can create an impression that
the Democrats are more concerned about the environment than jobs,
they will have positioned their man well to repeat the Nixon-Reagan
scenario in states that are essential to Democratic chances in 2004.
If the Rove strategy succeeds in simply shaving a few percentage
points off the current level of union household support for any
Democrat who challenges Bush, he will have earned his keep.
And his political operation has already proven its ability to use
the jobs issue as a hammer against Democrats: Consider the 2000
results from West Virginia where, despite united union support for
Gore in a traditionally Democratic state, Bush prevailed with an
environment-versus-jobs scare campaign. Forget about Florida--if
Gore had simply won West Virginia, a state that voted for Mike Dukakis
and Bill Clinton (twice), he would have been sworn in as president
on January 20. Don't doubt Rove's determination to export the West
Virginia strategy in 2004.
So what are Democrats doing to challenge a Republican White House
that is using some of the oldest tricks in the political playbook?
"The differences between our principles and President Bush's could
not be greater," said House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, as
he unveiled a Democratic plan that argued in its introduction, "We
believe that America's current and future energy needs can be met
without compromising our nation's fundamental environmental values.
We believe that the federal government can lead by example and become
more energy efficient, invest in innovative technologies, and assure
that energy markets are fair and competitive."
That's a sound, if not particularly sexy, line of analysis. But
where is the traditional Democratic promise of significant job creation?
Where is the dramatic counter to Bush's pipe-dream of pipelines
and old-fashioned power plants? Where is the promise of the massive
alternative energy jobs program? Where is the public works promise
that historically has cemented the relationship between Democrats
The simple answer is that the "new realism" of the New Democrats
says that public works programs of the traditional sort are no longer
politically viable. What the New Democrats cannot explain, however,
is why Democrats have had such a hard time winning congressional
majorities since they began embracing the DLC's tepid, Republican-lite
agendas for solving major problems.
The Democratic alternative to the Bush administration's energy
proposals must be every bit as aggressive and adventurous as the
president's plan. The difference should not be in scope or scale--simply
direction. Environmental groups make a sound case that more jobs
can be created by developing clean, safe and affordable power and
by promoting energy efficiency. "If the Building Trades, Machinists
and Steelworkers look at the difference in the number of long-term
jobs from building a few nuclear power plants and from retrofitting
thousands of homes with solar panels, they will see there are a
lot more long-term jobs in retrofitting," argues League of Conservation
Voters President Deb Callahan.
That message needs to be delivered quickly and loudly not just
by environmental groups and service-sector unions with a penchant
for green policies--such as the powerful Service Employees and American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees--but also by
the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate. And Democrats
have to start talking about where they will find at least some of
the money--or the regulatory force--to get such programs off the
ground. That means taking far more seriously the rhetoric of the
2000 campaign about opposing gimmicky tax cuts for the rich.
It also means that Democratic leaders will need to start listening
to members who have spent time figuring out how energy programs
can be good for labor and the environment. They could start with
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who earned national fame in the '70s
when, as the mayor of Cleveland, he fought to defend that city's
municipal power system. Now the chairman of the Congressional Progressive
Caucus, Kucinich has developed visionary proposals for meeting the
nation's energy needs while respecting the environment and creating
jobs. One such plan, the Gas Price Spike Act, features ambitious
proposals for providing tax credits to consumers who purchase highly
efficient union-made cars, SUVs and light trucks. It also seeks
to promote mass transit by providing funding for the reduction of
Where would Congress find the money to pay for these ambitious
initiatives? Kucinich would start with a windfall profit tax on
industries that manage gasoline, diesel, crude oil and home heating
oil. As another Progressive Caucus stalwart, Vermont independent
Rep. Bernie Sanders, points out, "If you go out and listen to people,
you'll hear plenty of anger at the energy companies. There is a
great deal of support out there for windfall profits taxes."
Most Americans also oppose the Bush camp's approach. The latest
Gallup poll shows 56 percent oppose opening Alaska's wildlife refuges
for oil drilling, while just 40 percent back Bush's position. On
the broader question of how to respond to current energy shortages,
52 percent favor conservation while 36 percent lean toward the Bush
plan to increase production.
The strategy for countering Bush, Cheney and Rove must speak the
language of both blue-collar workers and environmentalists. To do
so, however, progressives on both ends of the Teamsters-and-Turtles
coalition must force Democrats to challenge not merely Bush's cynical
environmental vision but Karl Rove's even more cynical political
schemes. "The Bush people know that Republicans have a lot better
chance of winning when they can drive that wedge in between labor
and the environmental movement," LaFollette says. "They know that
if they can sell the idea that Bush is for jobs and the Democrats
are not, he'll have a better chance to cut into the union vote that
went so strongly against him. That's their priority. The point is
to counter Bush and his people with a message that jobs and environmental
protection go together. And we can't be cautious in what we propose.
You know Bush's people won't be."