I. Your Mission
I have here an invite from the Southern California chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, the venerable liberal organization, that says you’ll be the main speaker at their annual dinner next Wednesday night at the Beverly Hilton. It‘s going to be your first major public pronouncement since Arianna Huffington floated the Beatty-for-President trial balloon last month — which is to say, either the first (if you decide to run) or the only (if you don’t) unabashedly liberal manifesto of campaign 2000. Either way, I‘d be a sad excuse for a liberal pundit if I didn’t take this opportunity to do a little pre-speech kibbitzing.
I‘m glad, by the way, that you’ve kiboshed the idea of running in the Reform Party. I‘ve been to a couple of Reform Party conventions, and just between us, these are not your people. The last movie they saw was How a Bill Becomes a Law in their 12th-grade government class; they’ve brooded darkly on it ever since. Good you‘re staying away. (Besides, the battle that’s shaping up between Donald Trump and Pat Buchanan for the Reform Party nomination looks to be the closest thing to class conflict we‘re going to see in this year’s presidential race. It has a certain insane purity I wouldn‘t want anyone to mar.)
So it’s back to the Democrats — ”that foul rag and bone shop of the heart,“ as Yeats put it. Well, actually, Yeats wasn‘t referring to the Democrats at all, but that bit about foul rags and bones isn’t a half-bad description, and by the evidence of Bulworth, the memory of the party, if nothing else, still has some claim on your heart, as it does on mine. It is all but memory now, the New Deal order, the notion of a government that promotes not just wealth but greater economic and political equality. Former Democratic Senator Bill Bradley was merely voicing the new conventional wisdom when he told the crowd at his own Beverly Hilton fund-raising dinner a few months ago that ”There is no alternative“ to the policies of reduced social protections and wage restraints that the financial markets impose upon governments. This is now the governing doctrine not just among Bill Clinton‘s Democrats, but also among Tony Blair’s Laborites and Gerhard Schroeder‘s Social Democrats.
So your mission, should you choose to accept it, isn’t simply to decry the way in which big money has fouled our politics, or to insist that full public funding of elections is required to restore us to some semblance of democracy. It isn‘t simply to put forth policies that ensure that the vast numbers of Americans who work at poverty wages, or who have no insurance when they or their children get sick, can actually make a fair day’s pay and see a doctor without fear of bankruptcy. It isn‘t simply to advocate real environmental cleanup, or pro-choice Supreme Court justices, or, Lord save us, teaching evolution in the schools. Not that there’s anything simple about any of that, but a left standard-bearer in the year 2000 has to do more. After all, Bill Bradley and Al Gore both support some modest forms of campaign-finance reform, some expansion of health coverage, some enhancement of workers‘ incomes. On these issues, you differ with them in degree but not in kind.
But on the global economy, they are both ”No Alternative“ guys to the core. What a left candidate in the current election has to demonstrate is that there is an alternative to a global economic order built by and for the financial community. So far, the only candidate pushing an alternative is Buchanan, whose alternative is a national economic order — a cause that’s not just wrong but already lost. The reason we need a left voice in the 2000 field is to make the case that while the global economy is here to stay, it doesn‘t have to be rigged to favor investment houses; that all those fuzz-faced financial fuglemen moving millions with a keystroke need not remain the unacknowledged legislators of the world; that a new economic order that takes into account the needs of the majority of people is actually possible. And better.
II. Your Dilemma
Nonetheless, the decision before you — whether or not to run — is more complicated today than it was when La Huffington first suggested it, and blame for that lies largely with the former senator from New Jersey. Bill Bradley understood from the start that the only room to run was on Gore’s left, and in the past two months he‘s begun to translate that strategy into policies. He’s come out for banning cheap handguns, for extending the 1964 Civil Rights Act to gays and lesbians and for allowing them to serve openly in the armed forces. He‘s called not just for banning soft money but for mandatory public financing of campaigns and free television time for candidates. He’s pledged to make it easier for workers to form unions, details to follow. And the day before your speech, he‘ll be in L.A. unveiling his plan for universal health insurance.
Bradley’s leftward lurch has been duly noted in liberal-land. In the past two weeks, one of the more progressive environmental groups, Friends of the Earth, has endorsed him, while The Nation has given him editorial encouragement. At the moment, Bill Bradley is actually running one of the more liberal presidential campaigns the Dem-ocrats have seen in some time.
The question, of course, is whether Bradley is just feinting left or making his real move to the basket. During his 18-year career in the Senate, after all, no one ever lumped him with the liberals. Along with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Bradley was one of the two Democrats on the Senate finance committee in 1994 to withhold crucial support from Bill Clinton‘s universal-heath-coverage proposal. The most significant piece of legislation he authored and steered to enactment in his three terms in the Senate was the 1986 tax cut — a largely regressive measure which helped create the huge disparity in wealth that Bradley now decries. As a leading proponent of free trade, Bradley has long been a particular favorite of investment bankers and studio moguls, who are keeping him financially competitive with Gore.
Nonetheless, Bradley’s appeal to liberals goes beyond his recent rhetoric. In polling this month, he‘s clearly closing the gap with Gore among Democratic voters and, among all voters, running stronger than Gore against George W. Among Democrats, Bradley’s support rises in the higher-income brackets; the core Bradley supporters appear to be upscale, suburban, good-government types, the folks who backed Paul Tsongas in 1992. He‘s also running just about even with Gore in the key early-primary states of New Hampshire and New York.
But Bradley’s most impressive breakthrough was registered in The Wall Street Journal‘s September 16 poll of all voters, which showed Al Gore trailing George Bush by 17 points, while Bradley trailed by just nine. Gore lagged Bush by identical margins among both men and women, but with Bradley, there was a major gender gap: While Bush led him by 16 points among male voters, the two were even among women. Which is to say, normal voting patterns begin to reassert themselves with the two candidates still introducing themselves to the American public. But Gore has been introduced to the public ad nauseam: His polling registers a specific rejection of him — and his president.
(Perversely, Bradley’s polling breakthroughs coincide with Gore‘s success at locking up the support of the California Democratic establishment. Last week, Gray Davis and most of the Democratic congressional delegation joined the overwhelming majority of state legislators in endorsing Gore. It’s possible, I suppose, that the entire party hierarchy is in some somnambulistic trance. When I remarked last week to one of 45 Assembly Democrats who‘s endorsed Gore that there was something lemming-like about their support, his only response was, ”Call me Lem.“)
To be sure, Bradley hasn’t faced tough scrutiny yet. For now, though, he looks to be a more electable version of Gore and, for the duration of the primary season at least, a more liberal version too.
Hence your dilemma: If you run, you could end up siphoning votes from Bill Bradley, thereby helping Al Gore, thereby — perhaps — helping George Bush. On the other hand, if you run, you could also dramatize the case for campaign-finance reform, for the living wage, for a more dem-ocratic global economic order. Assuming, that is, that you can break through the media spin on your campaign, which will focus on the incongruity of Beatty-as-Scourge-of-the-System, the Mulholland Liberal — you know the drill. You are, I think we can agree, not the best of all possible guys to make this case. But you also are the only guy who will make the left-liberal case in the 2000 campaign, should you run.
III. Your Message
Herewith, then, a few modest proposals for things a left candidate should be saying:
Poverty has a new face in America — not that of the unemployed, but of the working poor. The shrinkage of such manufacturing industries as auto and aerospace, with their middle-income jobs; the huge wave of immigrant labor that‘s swept over the nation in the past two decades; and the atrophy of private-sector unions — all have combined to create a new American poverty that is not cyclical, regional or the result of individual pathology (though those forms of poverty certainly continue to exist). Ours is a poverty that results from the normal workings of the New Economy, even in boom times such as these.
A new war on poverty, then, should aim first and foremost at poverty-level wages. Raising the minimum wage is an important but plainly inadequate solution. A better idea would be to substitute for the minimum wage the living wage — in which companies are mandated to pay workers several dollars an hour more than the existing minimum and provide them with health benefits (or a dollar or so higher than that if they don’t provide benefits). The living wage itself is no substitute for universal health insurance, but it is a good interim step in that direction, since it is primarily the working poor who lack coverage.
A second proposal would be to make it easier, and less risky, for workers to form a union. Right now, the success rate of unionization campaigns in the public sector is around 85 percent; in the private sector around 50 percent. This is not because public-sector postal workers are hardcore collectivists while private-sector Fed Ex workers are die-hard individualists, but rather because public-sector employers seldom aggressively oppose unionization campaigns, while private-sector employers do so routinely, if illegally. (Five percent of workers on organizing drives are fired, though this is against the law.) The most sensible way to amend our labor law would be to allow unions to win recognition in a workplace by collecting the signatures of a majority of the workers there.
Next, be an advocate for public investment. On both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Democrats have become neo-Coolidges, the party of deficit reduction uber alles. This wasn‘t the policy of the Roosevelt-Truman or Kennedy-Johnson Democrats. The World War II generation invested more in schools and infrastructure than any generation before or since. Today, with the prospect of a huge budget surplus and with polling showing overwhelming support for higher funding of schools, the Dem-ocrats have forgotten how to invest in the future. In fact, we now have the best opportunity in decades to rebuild America’s crumbling public sector. We need a candidate to make that case.
Finally, there‘s a way you can personalize the issues of the global economy — and, for that matter, the issue of how the financial community controls government trade policy. As a producer of films, you are protected by the insistence of the U.S. government that other nations honor our copyright laws. Capital and intellectual property are sacrosanct in all our trade accords. Your fellow Americans who produce cars, steel and garments, however, have no such protections. Our government has not insisted that other nations adopt any standards, much less ours, when it comes to labor rights. In fact, labor and environmental standards have to be part of the core documents of any trade accords. In their absence, our double standard in policy is creating a double standard of living for the American people.
Campaign-finance reform I’m sure you don‘t need any help with. As for Ishtar jokes, you’re on your own.