Photo by Joeff Davis
BOSTON — With the speakers required to submit their podium copy in advance to party managers eager to homogenize the nationally televised message, who can be surprised that avuncular Jimmy Carter, railing against the “super-rich,” came off — by midweek — as perhaps the most radical voice to be heard on the floor of the Democratic National Convention?
The political discipline imposed by the DNC’s producers on the dais went way beyond the corseted standards of, say, the Republican Party and flirted with what Marxist-Leninists call “iron discipline.”
After nearly four years of many a Democrat branding Bush a liar, a lout, a dope and a smirking chimp. After suggesting he came to power through a coup, or that he might have winked at Saudi involvement in 9/11 (which, according to some, might in itself have been some kind of a self-inflicted American Reichstag). After tarring him as the most radical, or the most dangerous and, at a minimum, the worst president of our lifetime. After all this, it was all of a sudden taboo to as much as mention President You-Know-Who from the convention stage.
Maybe this is a wise strategy aimed at sewing up the decisive swing vote. Or maybe it’s the usual party timidity. What’s for sure is that, this week at least, it ain’t even up for a debate.
Go no further than poor Howard Dean’s speech Tuesday night. I’ve never been a great fan of Doctor Dean, but I winced with empathy when I saw the on-camera role the party had assigned him. Given barely a handful of minutes, and with his former campaign manager Joe Trippi denied the courtesy of a floor pass, Dean was assigned Jesse Jackson’s old cleanup position. Get up onstage, Howard, and bark any of the straying sheep back into the fold.
You’d think the guy who so much as invented the Democratic campaign this cycle, the candidate who jump-started the base, who literally put the party back in the race and who almost re-invented the process of grassroots politicking, might be afforded a tad more latitude.
But no. “I’m Howard Dean and I’m voting for John Kerry” was the nut of Dean’s mini-speech. More than a loyal Good Soldier, Dean had been re-programmed into the unblinking Manchurian candidate.
I’m not blaming him. These were simply the rules that were imposed. Either comply with the 3-by-5 card of mind-numbingly mushy DNC talking points, or you don’t get off the bench:
We Democrats have never been so united.
We Democrats have never been so energized.
We Democrats guarantee that John Kerry is safe for you to elect.
We Democrats are moderates in favor of a strong America.
And, most importantly, we Democrats have no differences among ourselves.
It was another scene altogether just a few hours earlier when the same Howard Dean, unreeling a very different speech, had 1,500 amped-up, chanting and clapping Democrats hanging off the rafters and overflowing into the streets of Cambridge in, yes, one more event titled “Take Back America.” Dean’s much more fiery address to an auditorium full of progressives was a reminder that his meteoric rise late last year came not only because he directly confronted President Bush but also because, in many ways, he was also running against the Democrats. Vowing that Kerry will be elected in November, Dean told the roaring crowd, “And then you’ll get only a month off because our work will just be beginning. We’ve got a lot of work to do rebuilding the infrastructure of the Democratic Party after 20 years of neglect.”
Indeed, in the course of his 25-minute speech, Dean didn’t mention John Kerry but two or three times, and spent most of his time encouraging his listeners to construct a new bottom-up movement that could carry a class-based message of reform beyond traditional ideological lines.
There was nothing better than Howard Dean’s two deeply contrasting speeches separated only by a handful of hours — one on the DNC floor and one outside — to underscore the dilemma of liberals and progressives during this convention week that kicks off the final phase of the 2004 campaign. For all the jibber-jabber about unprecedented Democratic unity, there’s a palpable anxiety that ripples through the party activist ranks. The liberal “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” may, in fact, have become the motor force of this year’s national campaign, but everyone knows John Kerry was not its first choice.
Liberals and progressives assembled here are constantly asking themselves just what — if anything — they’re going to get out of their marriage of convenience with Kerry.
Some are rather rosy. “No question that the progressives have taken over much of the infrastructure of the party,” says Ellen Miller of the Campaign for America’s Future, the group that organized the Cambridge forum that Dean addressed. “Kerry is what we got. But it’s not going to be like with Clinton where everybody just went to sleep after he got elected. We’re going to keep the pressure up on Kerry right from the very first day.”
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.
Standing in front of a poster of Hamer, Lee proclaimed the Black Caucus to be the “conscience of the Congress.” “It is,” she said, “the resistance movement inside the House of Representatives.” But hanging alongside Hamer’s portrait was a blue banner from war contractor Lockheed Martin, the main corporate sponsor of the lavishly appointed event (dinner, booze and entertainment for hundreds). The septuagenarian MFDP veterans were handed their award plaques from a blow-dried hack from Verizon, the event co-sponsor.
There are, of course, two ways to look at all of this. Either you believe that money permeates all politics and that the CBC is only doing what everybody else does and, in fact, has no choice other than to wet its beak with all the others. Or, conversely, you believe that the CBC ought to be, indeed, the conscience of the Congress and that calling upon the likes of Lockheed and Verizon to sponsor an homage to none other than Fannie Lou Hamer is, at a minimum, in abominably bad taste.
Things got worse the next night when I decided once again to follow the money. And it led right to the Wellfleet oysters and mango lobster cakes. And the grilled swordfish. And the stuffed figs and sushi. And to the ham, turkey, pasta, grilled vegetables, smoked duck, jumbo shrimp, fresh clams, cream puffs, napoleons and éclairs. And to the gourmet wine bar and two or three other free-flowing bars. And lapping all of this up late Monday night, the California Congressional Delegation and much of the cream of Democratic “progressivism” — including Dr. Dean and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
By day, they rail against special interests. By night, they party down with them.
This is no run-of-the-mill special interest. The money trail I refer to is the one the L.A. County District Attorney Steve Cooley has just launched a criminal investigation to sort out. It emanates from the corporate PR powerhouse Fleishman-Hillard, which is at the center of the still unfolding influence-peddling scandal stinking up Mayor Hahn’s City Hall.
That didn’t stop many a California Democrat from accepting the invitation from Fleishman-Hillard to party all night on the 50th “Skywalk” floor of the local Prudential Tower as the flacks picked up the gargantuan tab for what was certainly one of the most expensive, outré spreads thrown this week. There were Representatives Howard Berman, Zoe Lofgren, Ellen Tauscher, Adam Schiff, Lynne Woolsey and former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta as well as the aforementioned Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi.
“We’re here to celebrate the diversity of the California leadership,” said a beaming Bill Black, a Fleishman executive and former assistant to South Bay Congresswoman Jane Harman. Tolerance for diversity, for sure. A California delegation that couldn’t find a way to distance itself from a discredited gang of corporate trimmers, instead ready to be bought off with cream puffs and oysters.
I’m not being a purist or a naif. I don’t expect elected officials to steer completely clear of corporate cash — though it would be nice if they tried now and then. But so brazenly to commingle with such tainted funders at the precise moment that their handiwork is swamping the Democratic mayor of America’s second-largest city is truly mind-boggling.
But apparently, no one wants to offend the sacred cows with the golden teats. As I stood munching on the crisp jumbo shrimp and chewed the fat with Jerry Brown, a Latino delegate from Central California cut in to take his own whack at the seafood. “This must be Bustamante’s idea,” he said happily as he piled some shrimp on his plate. “Weren’t you at Davis’ second inauguration?” he asked me, reading the confusion on my face. “Cruz had this great reception and mounds and mounds of this same shrimp. This must be his idea!”
And who says the Democratic Party is bereft of fresh ideas? The shrimp verily crackled.
Sometime after midnight, both Dean and Pelosi spoke to the partygoers and repeated this year’s usual progre-babble lines about “taking back America.” But just exactly from whom are we going to be taking it back?
Indeed, the gala program was introduced by California delegation chair Zoe Lofgren, who profusely thanked the evening’s sponsors. Not only Fleishman but also SBC, VISA USA, Siemens, PG&E, Fluor, Hewlett-Packard, Technet, eBay, the Wine Institute, Genentech, Intel, Oracle, Symantec. And, yes, the air-traffic controllers union.
In case Lofgren’s list went by too fast, on the way out we were all handed a T-shirt with the same corporate sponsors’ names emblazoned on the back. Proper attire when we stand on the ramparts in that final coming battle to take back our country. See you there. Make sure to wear your shirt so we can recognize you from the enemy.