Dithering Democrats

The November forecast looks gloomy.

Doug Ireland

Zbigniew Brzezinski tours the Afghan border with Pakistan’s minister of defense in 1979.

Gore Vidal’s dictum — America has elections instead of politics” — has never been more true. As the bipartisan duopoly slouches toward November, the electorate appears by every measure to be deeply uninterested in the choices before it.

Just look at the record low participation in the 16 states that held primaries this spring. On average, only 16.2 percent of eligible voters bothered to go to the polls, a drop from the 1998 midterm elections (17.6 percent) and less than half the high-point primary participation in 1966. Nine of the states with early primaries this year reported the lowest turnouts ever. No one should have expected that the events of September 11 would have increased political participation,” says Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. What the citizenry was asked to do was to return to normalcy, consume material goods and invest in the stock market — hardly clarion calls to civic involvement. The only exhortation was for an increase in voluntarism — which tends to be a noblesse oblige, apolitical act.”

The dreadful primary turnouts presage a low vote in November — and that’s bad news for Democrats, who traditionally do better the higher the turnout. Worse, the highly regarded bipartisan Battleground” poll, conducted by Democrat Celinda Lake and Republican Ed Goeas, not only confirms the lack of voter enthusiasm for the elections, but, in a survey released June 26, shows that Republican voters appear to be more motivated than Democratic ones. And there’s little interest in the fall elections among two key Democratic constituencies: African-Americans and unmarried women. Lake calls it the Bush effect — Republicans are more intense than Democrats.”

Moreover, Republicans are making serious inroads among Latinos: Democratic pollster Sergio Bendixen’s survey of Latino voters for the center-right New Democrat Network showed that 40 percent would be more likely to support a candidate endorsed by George Bush (who, Bendixen told the Washington Post, has developed a warm rapport with Hispanics similar to the bond that Bill Clinton enjoyed with African-Americans”). And Bush’s sharp tilt toward the murderous Ariel Sharon has driven many Jewish voters into the arms of the Republicans. Even a chunk of the gay vote is slipping away from the Democrats: The GOP got a third of it for Congress in 2000, according to exit polls of self-identified gays, and the opportunists who run the Human Rights Campaign — the nation’s wealthiest and most visible gay lobby — have distributed endorsements to a raft of GOP congressional candidates this year.

Despite the jingoistic mood in the country, Americans are beginning to understand that Bush’s war on terrorism isn’t working: A CNN/​Gallup poll released July 10 reveals only 39 percent believe that the United States is winning the war on terrorism, while 43 percent say neither” side is winning. But Bush is even more of a Teflon president than Ronald Reagan was — nothing seems to stick to him. That same poll showed 71 percent continue to approve of Bush’s conduct of international affairs, and Bush’s overall positive approval rating with three-quarters of the voters has remained pretty steady for the past several months in every major opinion survey.

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Cowed by these numbers, Democrats have failed to exploit the openings that current events have given them. Afghanistan has returned to rampant warlordism, factional assassinations and drug dealing — the same conditions that gave rise to the Taliban in the first place. CIA footpad Hamid Karzai’s interim government was elected” by an unrepresentative loya jirga marked by widespread intimidation and death threats (and then immediately abolished the Ministry for Women’s Affairs — belying the Bush argument that the war was fought for the emancipation of women). Not a single al-Qaeda cell or mole has been unearthed here by U.S. intelligence services, despite Bush’s shredding of our civil liberties.

Al Gore finally emerged from hibernation, shaved his beard, and delivered a speech that was widely reported as a major attack on Bush. But on closer examination, Gore only made the rather common-sense observation that Bush had failed to capture Osama bin Laden, without ever dissecting the reasons for that failure. Dick Gephardt has given Bush a blank check to invade Iraq, as have Democratic presidential candidates Joe Lieberman and the liberal” John Kerry. Some Democrats, like Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, are running TV spots featuring pictures of themselves with Bush. The campaign of Missouri’s Jean Carnahan boasts that she votes with Bush 71 percent of the time. And the Democrats’ Texas Senate candidate, Ron Kirk, is promising that more times than not … I’ll be supportive of the president.”

Even more glaring and indefensible has been the way Democrats have blown the opportunity to make serious political capital out of the corporate scandals. From the moment Enron imploded, the Democrats should have made it a central theme of the congressional campaign. But they failed to do so because there were too many Democrats in both houses who also had accepted piles of campaign cash from Ken Lay and his corporate crooks. If you set aside the $2 million Enron gave in the 2000 presidential campaign, when Lay and his cronies tilted heavily to Bush, the remaining $4 million given by the conglomerate to federal candidates since 1989 was almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats also raked in boodle from Enron co-conspirator Arthur Andersen: More than half the House and 94 of 100 Senators took Andersen money in the past decade.

The same is true of WorldCom, which since 1989 has given $7.6 million in soft money, PAC and individual contributions spread evenly between the two national parties,” according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In just the 2001-2002 period alone, WorldCom gave more than $1 million, split equally between Democrats and Republicans. Global Crossing played the same game: 55 percent of its $3.5 million since 1999 went to Democrats, 45 percent to the GOP. Terry McAuliffe, the bagman who chairs the DNC, got to buy pre-IPO shares in the company at an insider’s price of $100,000 — and resold them before the company collapsed for an $18 million profit.

In 2000, Democrats also helped scuttle the proposal by then SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt to ban accountants from simultaneously acting as consultants to the same firms they audited — this would have closed the loophole that motored Andersen’s participation in the Enron crimes. And, of course, the accounting industry’s puissant lobby — the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) — gave more than $8.5 million between 1989 and 2001, almost evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

Indeed, of the 46 members of Congress who wrote letters to the SEC opposing the Levitt proposal, the one who topped the list of legislators on the take was New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, who sucked in $340,000 in campaign cash from AICPA and the Big Five” largest accounting firms. So-called liberal” Democratic congressmen, like Florida’s Peter Deutsch ($131,198) and Connecticut’s Jim Maloney ($51,095), as well as New Democrats” Ellen Tauscher ($82,801) and Cal Dooley ($65,000) of California, Washington’s Adam Smith ($21,500), and Virginia’s Jim Moran ($115,661) made the Top 25 list of those House members who took the most money from the accounting industry to help kill the reform proposal.

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Of course, WorldCom’s binge of fraudulently financed acquisitions that made it the planet’s largest communications conglomerate took place during the corporate-coddling Clinton years, when Bubba turned the Lincoln Bedroom into a hot-sheet hotel room for corporate crooks, and put a virtual end to antitrust prosecutions (with the notable exception of Microsoft, whose Silicon Valley competitors had purchased Clinton and Gore’s loyalty). In a July 10-11 CNN/Time poll, 40 percent blame Clinton for the corporate scandals, while only 33 percent blame Bush.

That helps explain why it took the brain-dead Democratic leadership so many long months after Enron’s collapse last fall to get on the corporate reform bandwagon. When Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt finally made a joint appearance to announce the Democratic alternative to Dubya’s rhetorically strong but toothless speech on the issue, they did so at a podium decorated with the oxymoronic slogan, Restore Corporate Trust and Integrity” — as if either virtue had ever been a hallmark of corporate America. (If the slogan had been Put the Crooks in Jail,” the Democrats might have had a better chance of arousing sleepy voters.)

The Democratic proposals were so weak — an oversight board, slightly longer jail terms in some cases — that they passed the Senate with unanimous or near-unanimous votes (the White House gave its backdoor approval to the GOP solons’ votes for the Democratic amendments to protect them from charges of corporate-coddling in the fall campaign — knowing that Tom The Hammer” DeLay and his lockstep House GOP troops would ensure an even weaker final bill when it goes to the House-Senate conference). At the end of the first day’s Senate voting, Daschle appeared on the Jim Lehrer Newshour to smilingly proclaim that the differences are narrowing” between the Democrats and the White House — hardly a rallying cry for a Democratic victory in November.

The next day, Daschle even connived with the GOP to prevent a series of amendments to strengthen the reform bill, offered by Democrat Carl Levin and Republican John McCain, from coming to a floor vote. Among them: a proposal, supported by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, to count stock options as an expense against earnings in order to prevent companies from giving investors false information about corporate balance sheets — an effort, in other words, to eliminate the loophole that allowed the Enron crooks and their imitators to walk away with fortunes while their employees lost their retirement savings. Why was it quashed? The proposal was anathema to the high-tech execs who provided a huge chunk of the record $45 million in soft and hard campaign cash the Democrats have raised so far this cycle. As McCain put it, The fix is in.”

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We’re in the biggest corporate crisis since l932, the election is only four months away, and the Democrats still don’t have a program to take to the country,” fumes Russ Hemenway, the veteran director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress. The NCEC calculates that there are only 37 House races in which the outcome is seriously in doubt. The Democrats need to pick up seven of those seats to retake control. (Democratic Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas has already announced that, in the event of a tie in the makeup of the new House next year, he’ll vote with the Republicans to assure they preserve their majority.) And, Hemenway says grimly, Taking seven seats will be like climbing Mount Everest.”

Democratic chances of retaining their one-vote Senate control are shaky at best. Three Democratic incumbents are in serious danger: Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone, Missouri’s Carnahan and South Dakota’s Tim Johnson; while the party’s best chances of picking up GOP seats are against Colorado’s Wayne Allard and Arkansas’ Tim Hutchinson (although both are still leading in the polls). If New Hampshire’s wacky Bob Smith is defeated in the Republican primary by Rep. John Sununu (son of Bush I’s chief of staff), as seems likely, he’ll probably retain the seat for the GOP. The only open Republican seat the Democrats have an outside chance to pick up is in Texas, where Kirk has a slim lead at the moment over his GOP opponent. But Georgia’s Cleland and Iowa’s Tom Harkin are both facing stiff GOP challenges.

On the state level, the only real Democratic bright spot this year is in Michigan, where state Attorney General Jennifer Granholm (who was arrested during college at an anti-apartheid sit-in) is poised to win the party’s gubernatorial nomination and has a 2-1 lead over her ultra-right GOP opponent in the polls. But the news is bad for the Dems in other big states: California Gov. Gray Davis has yet to break 50 percent in any poll, his negatives are higher than his positives, and his lead over his GOP opponent has been steadily narrowing (in a race in which Davis’ frantic corporate shakedowns for campaign cash have become a major issue). New York Gov. George Pataki, having bought off half the labor movement and a big slice of the Latino vote, will handily defeat whichever of the two Democrats wins the September primary (barring an unexpected November breakthrough by a wealthy independent, deficit hawk Tom Golisano). And Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will romp to victory over Janet Reno if, as the polls suggest, she wins her primary.

And what of the Greens? Ralph Nader, who inexplicably hibernated for six months after the 2000 elections — throwing away a chance to turn his legions of volunteers into an effective electoral fighting force while their enthusiasm was at its peak — resurfaced for the first time in months on TV news on the same day the WorldCom thieves were taking the Fifth. And where was dear Ralph? In Havana, warmly greeting Fidel — at a time when he should have been in Washington leading the charge against corporate fraud. These issues are Nader’s meat and potatoes, but the man has the political timing of an aardvark.

Moreover, while the Greens are right to run gubernatorial candidates against Democratic mediocrities in places like New York — where working-class intellectual Stanley Aronowitz, a well-known figure on the left, is carrying the party’s banner with the feisty slogan Tax and spend!” — it’s bad strategy and bad politics for the party to put up a candidate against Minnesota’s Wellstone, the Senate’s most progressive member. The Green vote could ensure Wellstone’s defeat in a terribly close race, exposing the alternative party to ridicule (and properly so). Don’t look for any Green breakthroughs this year. 

All in all, this election cycle looks so dismal that, as Hemenway puts it, one wants to avert one’s eyes.”

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Doug Ireland has been writing about power, politics and the media since 1977. A former columnist for the Village Voice, the New York Observer and the Paris daily Libération, among others, his articles have appeared everywhere from The Nation to Vanity Fair to POZ. Hes a contributing editor of In These Times. He can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND.
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