By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
But there’s a darker view among some on the Democratic left. One that hit party leaders like a bombshell on the second day of the convention when they picked up that morning’s Washington Post and saw a front-page story quoting the head of America’s biggest labor union saying the long-term fate of the labor movement and of the Democratic Party might be better served if Kerry lost. While noting that his union is putting $65 million and 2,000 field workers behind Kerry’s effort, SEIU president Andy Stern said both the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party are in “deep crisis” and that a Kerry victory might sap away mounting energy for deep reform.
Stern wasn’t saying he preferred a Bush victory, but admitting an uncomfortable but glaring truth. While Kerry would make a better president than Bush, why isn’t it possible that his election would deflate the energy generated on the left over the last four years? Incontrovertibly, it was Bush — and not eight years of Clinton — that got progressives geared up again. Stern’s comments immediately seeped through the DNC and its environs as some sort of silent nerve gas, setting off innumerable fits and seizures and ranting denunciations. But he was merely pointing out the obvious fissures among Democrats that the convention has been straining to paper over.
Though a Boston Globe poll revealed that some 80 percent of the delegates opposed the war in Iraq from the onset (unlike the two candidates at the top of the ticket), the issue was never addressed head-on during the week. “You just have to swallow hard and sort of intuit that John Kerry’s going to do the right thing on Iraq,” said one Arizona delegate. “We just have to close our eyes and hope.”
Just what pressure organized progressives can bring to bear on Kerry honestly escapes me. It would be grossly unfair to measure that potential based on anecdotal evidence scattered throughout the convention. But the anecdotes are not reassuring.
When, for example, on convention eve, progressives organized a memorial in homage to the late Paul Wellstone — easily the most liberal of U.S. senators — the crowd of 150 or so didn’t even fill the first floor of the historic Old West Church. It was a mostly listless panel of speakers whose rhetoric, in its own way, was as stale as the bone-dry powder churned out from the DNC podium. Jim Hightower delivered the same one-liners he’s been serving up for more than a decade already about how “While some people are talking about a third party, what we need is a second party.” And as radical sociologist Frances Fox Piven told the crowd, “This event is just one of many across the U.S. that signals the rebuilding of the left,” I looked out at the sparse, mostly white, mostly middle-class crowd and thought, “It better not be.” Surely, the resurgent left has to be more than this.
What’s jarring about these events is to what degree they reveal how far removed the left is from any levers of influence, how inorganic it is to real power. And when it doesn’t matter much what you say, well then, you’re liable to say any old thing. Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who must hold one of the safest Democratic seats in America, told the assembled that if Paul Wellstone were alive, he would surely be calling for the November election to be monitored by international observers.
The truth, of course, is that the Paul Wellstone I knew would never make such an asinine, politically lethal call. What was missing most from that panel discussion about Wellstone was Paul Wellstone. Someone who knew how to transcend empty sloganeering and how to translate authentic populism into effective real-world politics.
Whatever clout progressives might or might not have within or upon the party, the DNC offers a sobering glimpse into the formidable clout exercised by Big Money. A 23-page, single-spaced Excel spreadsheet handed out to the press and delegates by the DNC listed the venues where the real down-and-dirty business of the Democratic Party gets hashed out this week. Or at least where the grease is sprayed to keep the party gears churning. It’s those places where cash merges with constituencies and the full, ripe — better said, overripe — contradictions of Democratic politics are splayed wide open (even if behind closed doors and by “invitation only”) and offered up for some pungent sniffing.
How about the Edison Electric Institute’s private bash for leaders “past and present” of the Congressional Black Caucus? Living proof that we are, indeed, all equal. And that for the right price anybody can be purchased.
Then there was the Burlington Santa Fe Railroad dinner honoring Latino hero and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (entrance permitted only with top hat and tails?). Coca-Cola and Verizon had their own fete for Latino leaders earlier in the day. Dick Gephardt — taking some time off from his ongoing defense of the working man — accepted luncheon honors from the General Motors Acceptance Corporation.
The same evening of the Wellstone event, I bumped into Congresswoman Barbara Lee again, this time in the sumptuous marble halls of the Massachusetts State House, where the Congressional Black Caucus Institute (CBC) was honoring 14 aging survivors of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). At the 1964 convention, Fannie Lou Hamer led the MFDP in an unsuccessful quest to fully integrate the state delegation.