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 spending” stance.
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 valid now.
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 30 years.
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.