Where's the Left?
I. SILENCE ON THE LEFT
IT'S QUIET OUT THERE. TOO QUIET.
You'd half expect some social theorist to come along any day now and proclaim -- as Daniel Bell proclaimed at the end of the '50s -- that America has reached the end of ideology. At minimum, we seem to be passing through an odd moment of dual exhaustion on both the left and the right. Conservatives don't have welfare to kick around anymore, or the deficit to deplore, or communism to declare the Democrats soft on. They battle now almost solely for the cause of neo-Puritanism -- a cause the majority of their countrymen plainly reject.
Liberals, alas, seem in even worse shape than conservatives. They don't have welfare to defend anymore. They lost the battle for universal health insurance in 1994, and have yet to figure out how to return to the fray. They are resigned to working within budgetary limits that preclude any major new governmental initiatives -- so resigned that not even a projected $3 trillion surplus can shake them from their torpor. To be sure, they joined up by the millions to fight the neo-Puritans on the impeachment issue, but that was more a surreal replay of the culture wars of the 1920s than a signpost to the progressive future.
To many on both left and right, there's a two-word explanation for this strange narrowing of the political spectrum: Bill Clinton. Conservatives complain that the president has co-opted all their causes; liberals complain that he's compromised their causes to death -- and in the case of welfare, he most certainly did.
But would that liberalism's woes could be laid solely, or even mainly, on the Big Creep. For all that Clinton has disappointed his liberal followers, or betrayed congressional progressives who thought they had his support, the full extent of the liberal collapse far exceeds Clinton's ability to add or detract. It's not Clinton's doing that America has no notable progressive governors and, more remarkably, no progressive mayors in any major cities (unless you count Oakland as a major city for purposes of slipping Jerry Brown under the wire). It's not Clinton's doing that no major liberal has come forth to oppose his proposal to use the surplus to retire the national debt. It's not Clinton's doing that the social-democratic parties of Europe are trimming their own welfare states to appease the gods of global capital.
And it's not Clinton's doing that no candidate from the left wing of the Democratic Party is running to succeed him as president. For now, the Democratic field in campaign 2000 comes down to two candidates from the center of the party: Vice President Al Gore and former Senator Bill Bradley (if two candidates can be said to constitute a field). Progressive Paul Wellstone, liberals Richard Gephardt and John Kerry and neoliberal Bob Kerrey each took a look at the race -- and each took a pass. (Indeed, Gephardt endorsed Gore this past Monday.) Jesse Jackson is making faint noises about running, but has done nothing to prepare a campaign or revive his coalition, which has been in mothballs for the past 11 years.
It's this void on the left that distinguishes this year's Democratic field from all modern predecessors. (And don't think sitting vice presidents get a free ride, as George Bush -- who was challenged by Bob Dole and five other Republicans in 1988 -- could attest.) Think back to the presidential contenders in years when there wasn't a Democratic incumbent seeking re-election: In '92, there were Tom Harkin and Jerry Brown; in '88, Paul Simon, Jesse Jackson and Gephardt (who began his move leftward during the campaign); in '84, Walter Mondale, Alan Cranston and Jackson again; in '80, Edward Kennedy (running against incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter); in '76, Mo Udall and Fred Harris; in '72, George McGovern; in '68, Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy (with Hubert Humphrey as the rightmost extreme); in '60, Humphrey; in the '50s, Adlai Stevenson (who fooled liberals into thinking he was a lot more progressive than he actually was, but it's instructive that he made the effort); and in '32, some guy named Roosevelt. You have to go back to the 1920s -- to the Democratic Party as it was before the New Deal -- to find a Democratic field in a non-incumbent year devoid of an unambiguous liberal.
SO IS IT A WRAP FOR AMERICAN LIBERALISM? DOES IT die with the century whose greatest glories -- the world's first middle-class majority, the establishment of a social safety net, the enactment of civil rights for racial minorities and women -- it helped create? This hybrid and not very ideological ideology -- descended from the progressivism of the 1910s, with a strain of prairie populism and a dab of Debsian socialism, and then defined by the movements of the '30s (labor and the socialist left) and the '60s (civil rights, feminist, environmentalist and anti-military-interventionist) -- now seems a vestige of a vanished world.
There are profound and valid reasons why liberalism has weakened -- some of them changes in the way the world works, some of them defects in liberal ideology itself. Among the former, the power of national governments (the preferred vehicle of American liberals and European social democrats) to affect social and economic conditions has waned under the assault of global markets that punish governments for unseemly displays of social generosity. Among the latter, the degeneration of the cause of civil rights into, at its extremes, a doctrine of racial entitlements drove a wedge into any potential majority for progressive change.
And yet -- take a closer look at the ostensibly centrist cities and their new, supposedly traditionalist, immigrant populations. Look at the erosion of middle-income jobs and the efforts of the labor movement to organize the underside of the New Economy. Look at a liberal movement that has moved beyond a kind of knee-jerk protectionism to the first serious efforts to build at a global level the kind of mixed economy that liberalism created at the national level 60 years ago. What you see are the stirrings of a new liberalism, moving beyond the cul-de-sac of identity politics to a new emphasis on class politics, moving beyond the limits of national sovereignty to a new emphasis on creating some balance -- of power, of wealth -- for the global economy.
For liberalism's critics underestimate its powers of reinvention. The New Deal liberalism of the '30s democratized and added a working-class component to the progressivism of the teens, just as the liberalism of the '60s removed the racial blinders that had led the New Deal to accommodate itself to segregation. And today, even amid the wreckage of venerable liberal programs and the self-destruction of some cherished liberal beliefs, a new liberalism incubates. It will shortly give birth to a new generation of mayors. It is not yet ready to generate a presidential candidate of its own (though both of the centrist Democratic candidates embrace a few of its defining positions), even as the old liberal causes and campaigns have grown too weak to generate the traditional liberal candidates to which Democrats have long been accustomed. At the national level, the presidential level, we are in a liberal interregnum -- a winter for liberals.
But there is a seed beneath the snow.
II. A DECADE ON DEFENSE
BY ONE ACCOUNT, THE LIBERAL WINTER WAS SUPPOSED to have ended 10 years ago. According to historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s cyclical theory of American politics, the '90s -- like the '30s and '60s before them -- was to have been a progressive decade.
As the decade closes, the foremost achievement of '90s progressives may be little more than preserving the progressive handiwork of the '30s and the '60s: Social Security and Medicare, respectively. But then, liberals have spent most of the '90s on the defensive -- fearing, after the debacle of health care, to advocate any new programs that raise taxes, and directing themselves, since the Newtoids took Congress in 1994, to curtailing Republican mischief.
Which explains the liberal acquiescence to the Clinton plan for Social Security.
For when it became clear last year that the government was about to start running huge budget surpluses, Clinton developed the ultimate defensive ploy of the decade. By demanding that the surplus be set aside to "save Social Security," he blocked the Republicans from enacting the kind of disastrous tax cuts that had ballooned the deficit and curtailed any new domestic programs during the Reagan years.
The problem for liberals is what exactly Clinton proposes to do with the surplus, since there's no Social Security bank account in which the money is just going to sit. His actual proposal is to use the surplus to pay down the national debt -- to its lowest level, as a percentage of all U.S. economic activity, since 1917. This is a proposal that has Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin's fingerprints all over it. When Clinton first took office, it was Rubin who argued that reducing the deficit and lowering interest rates would boost the economy, and should take precedence over any major governmental initiatives. Now, as Clinton is preparing to leave, Rubin is making the same argument for reducing the debt.
And, as with the deficit, Rubin is both right and wrong. Whacking the debt will free up more capital for investment, just as whacking the deficit already has. Problem is, not every social need is addressed by private investment. Affordable housing has dwindled even as the deficit has shrunk, because there's no profit in building affordable housing. The number of medically uninsured Americans has increased even as the deficit has decreased, because HMOs cannot figure out a way to insure them at a profit.
So directing several trillion dollars to debt reduction not only blocks any future GOP tax cuts. It also aborts any future Democratic designs to alleviate the affordable-â housing crunch, or win health coverage for the 45 million uninsured. Indeed, under the Clinton administration's own projections, so minuscule a percentage of the surplus will go to such projects that by the year 2004, spending on domestic programs other than Social Security and Medicare will shrink to its lowest level, as a percentage of the economy's total output, in 34 years.
More than that, putting the surplus into paying down the debt also takes a huge pool of money out of circulation, at a time when the global economy is drowning in a sea of overproduction and layoffs. It is precisely the kind of policy that the governments of the world charted in the early '30s, when they transformed an economic panic into the global Great Depression. It was the defining economic policy of Herbert Hoover -- and the policy against which the Democrats defined themselves for the next half-century.
So why is there a near consensus among Democrats for such neo-Hooverian hoarding? There is, after all, a clear progressive alternative: Raise the "cap" on the Social Security payroll tax (which currently is levied only on the first $68,400 of annual income) to save the system, and use some of that surplus for social needs that won't be met no matter how much capital is out there to invest.
For the answer, we must go back a couple of months to a closed-door meeting of the leading congressional liberals -- House Democratic leaders Richard Gephardt and David Bonior, prominent senators such as Ted Kennedy and Christopher Dodd -- with one of Washington's most respected (and liberal) pollsters. The question before them was whether there was a way they could sell raising the cap to the American voter. The pollster had phrased and rephrased the question, massaged all the numbers, and come up with a simple answer: No.
"Look, the best idea is to raise the cap," says one leading policy maven who attended the meeting, "but they wouldn't go for it. So the second best idea is the Clinton plan -- because it keeps the Republicans from enacting a catastrophic tax cut."
Such is life in the congressional minority.
III. A NEW MOVEMENT FOR A NEW ECONOMY (THE REAL ONE)
BUT WHILE LIBERALS HAVE BEEN ENDEAVORING, NOT always successfully, to fend off the Republicans on Capitol Hill, while they've been losing battles on affirmative action in California and control of statehouses and city halls all across the nation, they have also been engaged, often far from the public spotlight, in retooling their beliefs and their movements for a new progressive resurgence. More concretely, they've been reinventing liberalism for the decidedly, up to now, illiberal "New Economy" -- the global, postindustrial, skill-intensive, no-job-security, high-tech, high-flex, whiz-bang economic order celebrated by Democratic centrists. Adhering loosely to the notion of the "third way" -- a not-quite-doctrine that positions itself between the pure market mania of Reagan and Thatcher and the classic welfare-state politics of, say, American unions and European social democrats -- the centrist "New Democrats" argue that technological innovation and globalization have rendered the left's traditional concern for income maintenance and more equitable income distribution impossible to sustain. "What you earn," a prominent third-wayer named Clinton has said repeatedly, "depends on what you learn." The chief role of the state is to provide you with the "tools" to navigate the New Economy's choppy but exhilarating waters. After that, bub, you're on your own.
There's a problem with the picture of the New Economy that is painted by its celebrants, however: It's just one piece of a larger canvas. They are certainly right, for instance, that in an open global economy, high-wage manufacturing jobs belong on an endangered-species list. They blind their eyes, however, to the actual jobs that take the place of the decent-paying assembly-line gigs in aerospace and auto. In the one advanced economy most open to the forces of globalization -- ours -- the result has been the creation of more high-end jobs, to be sure, and vastly more low-end ones. In the shift to a largely service-sector economy, we create many more salesclerks, couriers, waiters and hospital attendants than we do investment bankers or computer designers. In the one American metropolis most open to the forces of globalization -- ours -- a look at the figures on income distribution should sober even a New Economy cheerleader. In 1996, as a study from Assembly Member Wally Knox documented, 41 percent of the residents of L.A. County lived in households whose annual income was below $20,000, and fully two-thirds in households with annual incomes below $40,000. Only 26 percent were in middle-income households making between $40,000 and $100,000, with 8 percent in households making over $100,000.
So much for the middle-class majority. And while Los Angeles, port of entry for so many immigrants, is at one extreme of American income distribution, America is steadily becoming more like L.A. as the middle-income blue-collar job drifts off into history.
In short, America has a new kind of structural poverty: the poverty of the employed. It is not cyclical, it is not a function of regional underdevelopment or individual pathology -- though all those kinds of poverty continue to exist and intermingle. It is poverty that results from the normal workings of the New Economy, even in boom times. It is the poverty of the excluded middle, in which the gap between rich and poor relentlessly widens.
It is on this issue, above all others, that American liberalism is reinventing itself. The spread of low-wage work, of poverty-wage jobs in particular, is clearly the occasion for a decisive shift in liberal doctrine, for the creation of new movements and the renewal of old ones that address these issues.
ANYONE TRYING TO FIND A STARTING POINT FOR THE new liberalism might want to go back to the spring day in 1995 when John Sweeney declared his candidacy for the presidency of the AFL-CIO. The mission of the labor movement, he averred, would henceforth be to address those income inequities, to organize, for the first time in half a century, the working poor. His campaign slogan, he continued, was "America needs a raise."
Now, one strong point of a movement whose watchword is "America needs a raise" is that it isn't totally paralyzed by the decade's other (and distinctly non-liberal) watchword: "The era of big government is over." The immediate goals of the new movement -- raising the minimum wage, enacting a "living wage," unionizing low-wage workers -- were not dependent on government social-welfare policy. The new poverty allowed the new liberalism -- actually, required the new liberalism -- to work around the crumbling welfare state.
Both the organizing and political strategies of the new liberalism tracked a demographic shift that was transforming American cities. The social-welfare liberalism that arose in the '60s was rooted in black-led urban liberal coalitions. The liberalism of the '90s was more reflective of the concerns of immigrants who had come to the cities over the past two decades: above all, Latinos ghettoized into low-wage work. The shift was between two distinct kinds of poverty. The kind of chronic joblessness, or withdrawal from the labor market, that dogs the black community in good times as well as bad is far less characteristic of Latinos. The latest (February 1999) unemployment figures show the jobless rate among African-Americans to be 8.3 percent; for Latinos it's 6.7 percent. Nationally, the level of labor-force participation for blacks stands at 65.8 percent. For Hispanics, the level is 68.3 percent -- higher than the overall U.S. level of 67.3 percent.
For years, pundits on the right have been predicting that Latinos, when they finally entered the electorate in force, would reject traditional liberalism for a more â centrist politics. They were half right. In California, Texas and nationally, poll after poll shows Latinos to be far less supportive of welfare, or concerned about police abuse, than African-Americans. On cultural issues, such as the use of medicinal marijuana, they've been measurably more conservative than the population as a whole. On issues of working-class upward mobility, however, Latinos are the vanguard of the new liberal coalition. By an 86-to-14-percent margin, they supported Proposition 210, the 1996 initiative raising the California minimum wage, while it was passing statewide by 61 to 39 percent. In the spring of 1997, L.A. Latinos supported a bond measure to build new public schools by an 82-to-18-percent margin. Blacks gave it 76 percent support; it passed citywide with 70 percent backing. And in June of '98, Latinos opposed Proposition 226, which would have curtailed the political power of unions, by a 75-to-25 percent margin -- rejecting it by 6 percent more than the margin by which blacks rejected it, even as it lost statewide 54 to 46 percent.
In short, far from ringing down the curtain on urban liberalism, the political mobilization of the new immigrant communities, Latinos in particular -- increasingly, a mobilization organized by the new labor movement -- is one of the linchpins of liberalism's rebirth. In America's cities, it has come not a moment too soon. The urban liberal coalitions rooted in the movements of the '60s -- in ethnic entitlements and welfare programs -- have everywhere lost power. America's mega-cities -- New York, L.A. and Chicago -- have seen liberal black mayors succeeded by center-right white ones. By the '90s, the moral claims of the old coalitions registered with fewer and fewer voters.
In universities and in working-class neighborhoods alike, it is the causes of the new liberalism that are mobilizing activists. The Service Employees International Union, under the leadership of Andy Stern, has hired more organizers than any union since the great auto and steel drives of the '30s -- hundreds of them off campuses, which inevitably has led to some cultural clashes. (In response to a rising number of expressions of bewilderment from nurses in a hospital chain SEIU is organizing, word went out to the organizers to take out their tongue studs.) The Service Employees will spend $65 million this year on campaigns such as the one that just organized 75,000 L.A.-area home-care workers (half of them immigrants). The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees will spend $35 million, much of it on a drive to organize Head Start employees. In a move sure to please the centrist advocates of the New Economy, the unions will establish training programs to improve the skills of these New Economy bottom-dwellers. In a move that would never occur to the New Economy centrists, these unions will also enable them to bargain collectively and win higher wages.
At a time when old urban liberal coalitions have crumbled, the organizers of the new have had no trouble winning middle-class allies. In city after city, large groups of clergy have marched and prayed in support of municipal living-wage ordinances, which require city contractors to pay their workers an hourly wage about $3 over the minimum, or $2 if they provide health benefits. Limited as they are to employees of city contractors -- inherently a small population -- living-wage ordinances are no substitute for universal health insurance. But inasmuch as it is the working poor -- not welfare recipients or Medicaid clients -- who constitute the majority of the 45 million Americans without health insurance, living-wage ordinances could address a good deal of that need if their popularity continues to spread and they come to supplant minimum-wage standards (which don't address the issue of benefits) for the entire population.
Already, the moral claim of the working poor to decent wages and benefits has compelled the same legislatures that are dismantling the old liberalism to grant concessions to the new. It was in the same two-month period, in 1996, that Congress both repealed welfare and raised the minimum wage. In another two-month period in 1997, the Los Angeles City Council banned aggressive panhandling and unanimously enacted the city's living-wage ordinance. And in its own support for living-wage ordinances and minimum-wage hikes, and for the UPS strikers, the public has identified itself with the cause of low-wage workers. It is on this foundation that the new liberalism will rise.
AND WHAT OF GLOBALIZATION, THAT OTHER PILLAR OF the New Economy? In polite society -- among centrist New Democrats, investment bankers, fuzz-faced brokers, garden-variety economists and, in a lower circle of hell, the editorial writers of America -- the liberal opposition to free trade is viewed as something out of the Flat Earth Almanac. No serious person could question the benefits of open markets.
Problem is, much of the rest of the world has begun to question at least the issue of unrestricted capital flows since last year's near-meltdown of the global economy. Things grew so serious that even Bill Clinton began to alter his mantra. Last September, he addressed a New York conference on the Third Way and proclaimed that we should try to build into the global economy some structures, protections and standards analogous to those that Franklin Roosevelt and his contemporaries built into national economies a half-century ago. (Clinton's rhetoric has had absolutely no effect on Bob Rubin's global policies, but such is life within the administration.)
Polite society always labeled liberalism's opposition to free trade as protectionist, nationalist, even racist -- as if Pat Buchanan defined the entire anti-NAFTA movement. Since John Sweeney arrived at the AFL-CIO, however, American labor has begun aiding Mexican maquiladora workers in their drives to form unions, and has worked in tandem with environmental groups and Naderites to formulate a joint list of transnational ecological and labor standards. House Democratic leader Gephardt, once the party's leading liberal nationalist, has done an about-face, now placing global labor standards at the center of his agenda. And an entire movement has arisen on American campuses protesting the return of sweatshop work in this country and the abuse of workers in distant lands by subcontractors for our leading retail chains. The new liberals are every bit as globalist as their free-trade adversaries.
Critics of international labor standards characteristically argue that we can't impose our standards and our laws on other sovereign nations. Yet the same critics demand that these nations change their laws to guarantee the inviolability of foreign investment, to conform their banking and accounting practices to ours, to grant "intellectual property" protections to American software companies and film studios and songwriters. The central tenet of the new liberal globalism is to extend the same protection to workers that we do to capital and intellectual property.
This progression within the global economy -- expanding a body of rights from capital to intellectual property to labor -- mirrors the progression within our national economy. Soon after the Civil War, the first truly national institutions arose in America -- railroads, oil companies, banking houses -- which were able to bend the national and state and local governments to their every whim. By 1910, America's professionals had organized themselves into national societies -- the American Bar and American Medical associations most prominently -- and thus arrayed, prodded governments to set standards for credentialing. Finally, in the 1930s, America's workers organized themselves into industrial unions, prevailing upon government to set standards for wages and working conditions.
Today, the global economy is at roughly the stage that the national economy reached in 1910. Transnational corporations and global finance bend national governments to their will much as Standard Oil or the Southern Pacific dictated to the statehouses of their day. The new intellectual property provisions in the trade treaties of the past decade provide the kind of protections for professionals in the world market that the standards of 90 years ago provided for doctors, lawyers and academics.
And as for global labor protections -- and the creation of the kind of semi-, or quasi- or pseudo-global government required to enforce them -- they're a ways off yet. They can be glimpsed, in embryonic form, in Europe, where the Monetary Union, having already fostered the creation of cross-border currencies and banks and stock exchanges, is now prodding political parties and governments of the left to call for the establishment of a cross-border government, and unions of one country to set strike and negotiating strategies with their fellow unions in other countries. These are the kinds of perspectives toward which the new American liberalism is moving, too.
Now, there's no better way to articulate this kind of vision than through the vehicle of a presidential campaign. The campaigns of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and his cousin Franklin two decades later crystallized for millions of Americans the changes in the nation's economic order necessary to reduce the extreme disparities in power and wealth. In the campaign about to begin, alas, Al Gore and Bill Bradley and George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole will all speak for a free-trade order, while Pat Buchanan will bellow for a nationalist-populist protectionism. The new liberal case for standards that would reduce the disparities in the world's balance of power and wealth will not, this time, be made.
IV. ACTUAL EXISTING CANDIDATES
TO DATE, THE ONLY EVENT OF CAMPAIGN 2000 AT WHICH Al Gore and Bill Bradley have both appeared, albeit on separate days, was the AFL-CIO's winter meeting in Miami Beach last month. And it was during this meeting that one of my reporter colleagues started referring to the dynamic duo as "dull and duller."
Gore isn't quite the stiff of yore. He's been taking speech lessons; he goes guttural in his perorations; he can rouse a crowd if not wow it. Bradley is one of those speakers whose ability to keep his audience awake is dangerously dependent on some loud noise emanating from elsewhere. (In Miami, he provided excitement by bringing along onetime Knicks teammate and former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson.) Bradley's rhetorical flatness does convey a kind of honesty and lack of presumption; it is almost, but not quite, endearing.
In Bradley's defense, he was one of the Senate's more cogent thinkers during his term there (19781996); I do not mean by that to damn with faint praise. But he has entered the presidential race with almost nothing to say. "I would run," he said when announcing the formation of his presidential exploratory committee, "to unleash the enormous potential of the American people."
And that's it. No hard edges, no soft edges, no positions. Later this year, he vows, he'll release six to eight detailed positions. But in private meetings, off the record, he intimates more. He will run, he suggests, to Gore's left -- calling for a major initiative on national health, a reduction in child poverty, an improvement in race relations. He derides the administration for setting up demonstration programs when real, nationwide programs are required. This comes close to the liberals' critique of Clintonism, and Bradley has some bona fides here. He voted, during his final year in the Senate, against the Republican welfare-reform bill that Clinton signed. He was a longtime critic of campaign-finance practices, and left Washington with what, by Bradley standards, was a blast at the whole corrupt process. If Bill Bradley showed up at a Buddhist temple, it would be to learn how to spin prayer wheels.
For all that, though, Bill Bradley is nobody's liberal. In the Senate, he was identified with the cause of free trade, and with the 1986 tax-reform bill, which cleaned up the tax code (always a good thing) in part by making it considerably less progressive (not such a good thing). When his voting record, as measured by The Almanac of American Politics, is compared to Gore's during the years they both served in the Senate, they are almost identical: Bradley took the liberal position on 75 percent of key votes, Gore on 74 percent. Then again, Bradley's New Jersey was a state that would indulge more liberal votes from its senator on cultural issues than Gore's Tennessee. On economic issues, Gore was actually the more liberal -- voting leftward 78 percent of the time compared to Bradley's 74 percent.
What's alarming is that Gore's articulation of his core ideas, the raison d'être for his candidacy, is scarcely more developed than Bradley's. A few months back, the vice president delivered the Big Speech intended to be the overture for his campaign, the first sounding of the great themes. "The great idea of our time is the fact of our mutuality," he declared, "our connection to one another. The old ways that didn't work saw only separate, competing entities . . . In this 'us-versus-them' thinking of the recent past, a vision of the common good struggled mightily -- often futilely -- to transcend the whole. But transcend we must . . . Today, I challenge America to â raise that banner with a new practical idealism for the 21st century."
The level of abstraction here suggests a translation from the German, but the politics are pure New Democrat: no opposed class interests, no bad guys of the kind that pop up in populist tirades, but mutuality, connection, transcendence.
Precisely because of his weakness for New Democrat vaporizing, and his commitment to free trade, however, Gore has spent the past six years working furiously to cultivate labor. And in so doing, he has made himself into the champion of one of the fundamental tenets of the New Liberalism: making organizing easier.
For six years, Gore had been anticipating a Democratic primary contest against Dick Gephardt -- Fair Trade Not Free Trade Gephardt, clearly the logical candidate for labor to back. From the first days of his veephood, Gore began cultivating union leaders individually: What do you think of this bill? this program? Can you and Madge go to the Kennedy Center next Tuesday with me and Tipper? Then he began attending AFL-CIO executive councils, and conventions of all the major individual unions, unveiling some goodie at each appearance -- a change in OSHA standards, a vow to veto GOP legislation allowing the hiring of replacement workers for strikers. But it was only when Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO, and the movement placed new emphasis on the organizing, that Gore found his magic carpet.
For years, labor had been complaining about the obstacles that more often than not thwarted workers in their campaigns to organize unions. Corporations would call in union-busting consultants, would threaten workers with closing the plant, would actually fire one in 20 workers involved in an organizing campaign. Most if not all of this was illegal, but the sanctions levied against employers by the National Labor Relations Act were so weak that companies broke the law with impunity. When Sweeney came in, the AFL-CIO began holding community hearings featuring workers who'd been fired, or whose union had won the recognition election but whose employer had refused to bargain with it.
And with that, Gore had his issue: He's become a relentless -- at minimum, repetitive -- apostle for law reform, for changing the law to better protect a worker's right to organize. Hailing "the moral authority of those who are trying to organize," Gore told one such hearing last month that "When workers are organized . . . our nation is better off." For unions especially, but also for the broader liberal community, this is potent stuff. It's widely expected that when the Federation's executive council meets this August, it will give Gore a unified endorsement -- which, given the political muscle that labor has developed during the past four years, is immensely valuable. To be sure, there are officials of the unions affected most adversely by the administration's free-trade policies who speak wistfully of how thoughtful Bradley is. But Bradley's not much of a club with which to beat the administration on the trade issue, not with a record on trade that if anything is more committed to open markets than Bob Rubin's. Still, Bradley, like Gore, affirms the need to strengthen organizing protections -- though he lacks (you must understand I am writing in relative, not absolute, terms here) Gore's vehemence and eloquence.
"We should make organizing in America easier," Bradley told reporters after meeting with the Federation council. "We talked about what that meant."
Compared to Bradley, Gore is Danton at the National Assembly propounding the rights of man, Trotsky at the Cirque Modern inciting Petrograd's workers on the eve of the revolution.
"If there were five candidates in the field, Bradley would never get the attention he's getting now," the leader of one progressive union told me in Miami. "He's thoughtful, though."
BUT NO ONE IS DISMISSING BILL BRADLEY totally, because there's that one little thing about Al Gore. If that proverbial election were held tomorrow, according to just about all the polling, he'd run 10 points behind your Uncle Gus.
A Time/CNN poll from early March had him trailing George W. by 11 percent, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll from last week had him down by 18. An ABC/ Washington Post poll this week had him lagging behind Bush by 13 percent, and Liddy Dole by 8 percent.
What's truly breathtaking here is that these polls were taken at a time when every other poll showed voters preferring the Democrats to the Republicans on Social Security, Medicare, education, crime, taxes, the enviroment -- damn near every issue this side of ritual circumcision. It was taken at a time when polling showed voters clearly preferring congressional Democrats to congressional Republicans. Yet Gore was trailing two Republicans about whom the public knows precisely nothing. Which induces a queasy feeling in many a Democratic stomach that the voters just don't want to make Al Gore their president.
In Al's defense, his staff point out that support for the GOP leaders is bound to decline when they finally start campaigning and espousing GOP positions. Staffers note that sitting vice presidents often look weak simply as a function of their job (this is, shall we say, a double-edged defense), that George Bush, at an analogous moment in 1987, trailed Democratic front-runner Gary Hart by 13 percent. Still, that was in the wake of Iran-contra, when Reagan's polling was touching bottom. Bill Clinton has just gone through the most degrading scandal an American president, or any American public figure, has ever known, with polling that rivals the pope's. We'll stick with Clinton, the public seems to be saying. But Gore's gotta go.
Which, in a nutshell, is the case for Bill Bradley. There's every reason to believe he'll espouse mainstream Democratic positions, if and when he gets around to announcing them, and assuming they're audible. And he's free of the Mark of Clinton, which seems to have schmutzed up Al Gore as much as it did Monica's dress.
FOR LIBERALS, AT LEAST AT THIS EARLY juncture in the campaign, there's no reason why the choice between Gore and Bradley should cause soul-searching or raise a fever. But there's a particular urgency to the November election next year, a compelling case why the Democrats must hang on to the White House and retake Congress. (As things stand now, there's an even-money chance the Democrats will retake Congress and lose the White House.) And it's based on the liberal understanding of the New Economy.
This much we know: The share of our economy devoted to manufacturing -- disproportionately a source of middle-income jobs -- will continue to shrink in the face of global competition. The service sector, with its polarity between high- and low-end jobs, will continue to grow. Union organizing efforts will continue to grow as well, but will be offset by the decline of the more heavily unionized manufacturing sector: Last year, for instance, unions organized 475,000 new workers, but saw a net membership gain of just 100,000 after plant closings and outsourcings. And -- unless we are magically transformed into a society of professionals with no need for any other kinds of work -- it is chiefly through unions that the gaps in income, skills and power that are only widening in the New Economy can be reduced.
Thus the urgency of a Democratic sweep: For the first time in half a century, congressional Democrats actually seem committed to the goal of strengthening unions, as do the party's presidential candidates. No other goal is more central to the project of the new liberalism, nor more imperiled by a new decade of Republican control. Whatever the shortcomings of Al Gore and Bill Bradley, they pale alongside the question of the fate of America's unions, and its workers.
IN AMERICA'S CITIES, THE REINVENTION of American liberalism continues apace. Chicago and Detroit recently enacted living-wage ordinances. And just as the two Democratic presidential contenders swear their allegiance to the cause of organizing, so the victory celebration for the union of home-care workers, here in L.A., was joined by the two early front-runners in the next mayoral election: Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. The moral claim of the working poor -- in modest apartments around L.A., in maquiladoras on the border, in the sweatshops of Saipan -- grows more insistent, more compelling.
It's been a long time, in fact, since American liberalism has attained quite this level of moral clarity -- not, I'd argue, since the heyday of the civil rights and anti-war movements more than 30 years ago. In the intervening decades, liberalism often turned on itself, pitting race against race while overlooking the commonalities of class. Today, it speaks for, and through, a more polyglot America -- acknowledging, celebrating, its differences, but demanding that the same single standard of dignity be accorded the least of our (and the world's) citizens as once it demanded a single standard of dignity for all of our races.
American liberalism is dead? Then long live American liberalism.
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