Mark Twain once said, “Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense.” I’ve been trying to make sense of the fiction that next year’s Democratic presidential primary is going to offer voters a real alternative to the thoroughly corpratized Al Gore (whose own mother has called him “a born conformist”). The claim is that Bill Bradley is the progressive surprise in the 2000 Cracker Jack box, that he’s a maverick with a liberal heart who’ll shake things up if he makes it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s pointed out that he’s talking about campaign finance reform, that he’s filled with sincerity about racial healing, and that he really cares about poor people.
Good for him! But it’s a measure of how faint the flicker of progressivism has become in the Democratic Party that we’re thrilled when a candidate sounds even slightly progressive.
We’ve been suckered by these same sounds before. In 1992, the “man from Hope” also talked about campaign finance reform, racial healing, and poor people, and many progressive pollyannas at the time insisted that he was a closet populist who would make us proud. (Of course, he wasn’t and he didn’t.)
As we learned from Clinton, caring about issues is just not the same as acting on them–or, as Pete Seeger once said, “Do so is more important than say so.” Anyone who had taken a hard look at Clinton’s governorship and seen his early fealty to moneyed interests would have known that this was not a guy who was ever going to lead the progressive charge.
So, before we hoist another Bill onto our shoulders as the putative people’s champion, it’s worth looking behind Bradley’s say so to check out his do so.
A checkered record
Quick: name a major progressive cause, some matter of importance that Senator Bradley championed in his 18 years in Washington or in his years since. Keep thinking.
Even on the issues he now says are at the center of his campaign, he’s never made an in your face challenge to the power elites or attached his name to a progressive achievement. Sure, he cast some good votes during his tenure: money for kids and the environment, against Clinton’s welfare deform, and for arms control. But voting is merely showing up–it’s the least that a senator does and bears little relationship to leadership.
The few issues that got his juices flowing and focused his energies were decidedly antiprogressive: (1) he strongly backed Ronald Reagan & Co. in the dirty war against Nicaragua in the 1980s; (2) he was an enthusiast for Reagan’s voodoo tax act of 1986, slashing the tax bill for corporations and the wealthy and jacking it up on working stiffs; and (3) he was a particularly peppy cheerleader for the passage of NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, and every other legislative scheme to extend the global reach of corporate power.
This son of a small town, Missouri banker distinguished himself in the Senate chiefly as a compliant servant to Wall Street bankers and corporate chieftains who were his steady and generous financial backers. The man who now talks loudly of campaign finance reform was tagged in his last senate race as “the king of bundled contributions” by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Bundling is a loophole that corporations use to dump otherwise illegal wads of money into a favored candidate’s pockets. For example, on June 16, 1989, thirty executives of the Wall Street firm Shearson Lehman Hutton suddenly and individually decided that it would be a good day to write checks of $500 to $1,000 to Bradley’s senate campaign. What an amazing coincidence! A week later, thirty two other Shearson executives were struck by the same spontaneous impulse. In all, Shearson bundled up more than $71,000 for the senator–the largest donation to a senate candidate that year.
Bradley’s drug problem
In the Senate, just like in his round ball days with the New York Knickerbockers, Bradley was a pay to play guy.
In his excellent book, The Buying of the President, Charles Lewis writes that in Bradley’s last senate campaign he took more money from drug companies than any other candidate in the country.
These pharmaceutical giants were not giving to Bill because they were old Knicks fans. They were avid fans of a loophole in the tax code called Section 936, and Senator Bradley, who sat on the tax writing finance committee, was their chief defender to keep the loophole in play. Section 936 had been passed years ago as an economic development boost for the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, allowing companies that created jobs there to avoid paying taxes on profits they made from their Puerto Rican operations. Fine, but in the 1980s, legal beagles for the drug makers twisted this good intention into a billion dollar a year boondoggle for themselves.
Here’s the trick. Profits from drug making come from the marketing, development, and research stages, with the actual manufacturing of a pill being an almost inconsequential part of the process. The corporations, however, saw Section 936 as a bird nest on the ground, for it allows them to shift good paying medicine manufacturing jobs from workers here in the states to low wage Puerto Rican workers — not only pocketing a cheap labor windfall, but also claiming that every dime of the profits they make on the drugs are tax free, since they are “Made in Puerto Rico.”
The bottom line on this bookkeeping maneuver is that we taxpayers dole out a subsidy of some $70,000 a year to these giants for each and every pill making job that they move to the island, even though the workers themselves are paid only around $12,000 a year. When senate reformers tried in the 1986 tax bill to stop this rip off, Bradley defended it with more frenetic energy and sprightly moves than he ever used in guarding Jerry West, and he saved Section 936 for his drug company contributors.
Asked by the Center for Public Integrity about the connection of such campaign contributions to legislative results, Bradley responded: “The assumption that the only reason anyone donates to a political campaign is to ‘buy access to power’ is insulting to those who participate in politics.” Bill always did show tail wagging enthusiasm for corporate executives to participate in politics through him. He performed so consistently in their interests that Investment Dealers’ Digest ranked him among “Wall Street’s strongest advocates,” and the official voice of corporate power, The Wall Street Journal, gushed in 1995 that Bradley was “the most admirable senator of this era.”
Will the real Bill Bradley please stand up?
Stepping down from the Senate in 1996, he had a new chance to define himself by example, by deciding where and how to apply his abilities and influence. So, where did he go? Did he go to the low income neighborhoods, perhaps joining Jimmy Carter in building homes for the poor? No. Did he tirelessly tour America speaking out on the issue that he says burns most deeply within him: race in America? No. Did he use his prominence and prestige to lead a grassroots rebellion against the big money corruption of American government? No again.
He went to Wall Street. He joined J.P. Morgan as “vice chairman of the international council” and he also hired on as a consultant to Morgan Guaranty Trust, raking in some $300,000 for services rendered. He talks now of “community” in America, but his own community outreach since quitting the Senate has consisted of crisscrossing America collecting fees for speeches he gives to the likes of Key Corp Bank, Barclays Global Investors, General Mills, National Association of Aluminum Distributors, and Chase Manhattan Bank.
Now he’s running for president because, he says, “I looked in the mirror and said, I’m ready. I’m really, kind of, at the top of my game.” But his game is to be liberal on social issues, be Republican on economic issues, and stay hitched to the money. No doubt Bradley feels for the poor and wishes the middle class well, but he’ll never offer anything but band aids, because to do more requires challenging the corporate structure and the privileges of the rich.
Probe even a bit beneath his caring demeanor, and you’ll find that he’s as solid a corpratist as Al Gore, or for that matter, George W. Bush. He accepts Wall Street’s full agenda of globalization that would enthrone corporations and speculators as sovereigns over workers, farmers, the environment . . . and governments (see Lowdown, March 1999).
For the millions of hard hit working Americans who have been downsized, outsourced, and seen their real incomes fall during the “prosperity” of the ’90s, he offers the same lame palliatives we hear from Gore and Bush: seek “retraining,” learn to “work smarter,” and “cross that bridge to the 21st century.” On farm issues, he is clueless, mumbling about exports and the “magic of the marketplace.” (Harry Truman once said, “No man should ever be president who doesn’t understand hogs.”)
On issues of high tech, biotech and any other tech, he’s as gullible as a hick on his first trip to the state fair, shoving research subsidies at the gabillionaires who run these trendy corporations, supporting their demand for more foreign workers to displace U.S. programmers and engineers, and backing their long list of special breaks.
And don’t expect him to stand against the mega mergers that are locking up industry after industry, essentially reconstructing the trusts of old, while they also squeeze out competition, raise prices, reduce service, and fabulously enrich the very CEOs and Wall Street bankers who are putting up the funds for Bradley’s run for the White House.
Even in his proposals to help the poor and middle class, he takes care to structure them in a way that will not offend his sponsors. Like Clinton, he would run most of his programs through corporations–an approach that John Kenneth Galbraith once likened to feeding birds by passing the grain through a horse. An example is Bradley’s widely hailed health care proposal, announced in September. First, give him his due–he deserves high praise for trying to put the issue of universal health coverage back on the table. But the praise stops there, because his idea amounts to a massive, money sucking subsidy for insurance companies and HMOs. Rather than boldly advocating a single payer plan that would eliminate the bureaucratic, wasteful, and fraud ridden insurance middleman, Bradley wants to hook up every American to these very insurance corporations, letting them control our medical decisions and continue their profiteering at our expense.
The money trail
“I am raising money from ordinary citizens, not from special interest PACs,” Bradley has proclaimed, and indeed he (and Gore) are rejecting PAC funds. But before you swallow that “ordinary citizens” line, note that 82% of his presidential funds so far have come not from the $25 crowd, but from the big contributors–a higher percentage of high dollar checks than even Bush shows! And he has taken more Wall Street money than any other candidate in the race. As a political advisor to wealthy institutional investors notes, “Wall Street likes Bill Bradley. He is a Wall Street kind of Democrat . . . the kind of guy corporate executives feel comfortable around.”
Why wouldn’t they find him comfy as an old sweater, since he shares their world view? While he has a sweet concern for the underprivileged, he can absolutely be counted on not to rock the corporate boat.
Among Bill’s special buddies, actively collecting up bundles of checks for him, are Thomas Labrecque, CEO of Chase Manhattan; Disney’s Chief Mousketeer Michael Eisner; Tommy Hilfiger of fashion fame (and a notorious exploiter of third world sweatshop labor); latte baron Howard Shultz of Starbucks; media mogul Barry Diller; John Bryan, CEO of Sara Lee (another sweatshop exploiter and a big backer of extending NAFTA to the Caribbean and Central America, where he makes clothing), and book chain czar Leonard Riggo of Barnes & Noble.
This is the people’s champion? Yes, Bill Bradley is smart. Yes, he’s serious minded. Yes, he’s a decent and caring human being. Yes, he’s got a jump shot and can run the pick and roll–but, no, he won’t take on the economic elites who are trampling America’s workaday majority.
WE’D NEVER MAKE AN ACTOR OUR PRESIDENT, WOULD WE?
How can we not have heard from either Democratic candidate a serious objection to the hypocrisy of the Democratic party proudly advertising our economic expansion as a “boom of unparalleled prosperity for the nation” when 60% of our people are doing no better in 1999 than they were doing in 1989?
How can we gloat about prosperity when the poverty level hasn’t changed at all?
Or when child poverty is four times that of Western Europe?
And extreme child poverty has gone up 26% in the past year?
And the poorest fifth of families headed by a single woman lost $577 a year in income and benefits between ’95 and ’97?
And there were 56% more layoffs in ’98 than in the year before?
A study of 4 Northwestern states shows half of the available jobs don’t pay a livable wage, while the pay of the average corporate chief executive officer has gone from 42 times to 419 times as much as the worker?
The richest 2,700,000 Americans have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 100 million?
The media loses interest. In the fall of ’88, the New York Times ran 50 stories on the homeless, 5 of them on the front page. In ’98, with no fewer homeless, it ran 10 pieces in the same period, none of them on the front page. Without hearing liberal Democrats, you won’t hear about these unrepresented people. You’ll hear about the unprecedented prosperity of globalization.
Why? Because these unrepresented people make no campaign contributions. 96% of the people in America make no campaign contributions. Every penny of financing for the selection of every candidate for every public office in America from dog catcher to President is supplied by 4% of the people. They’re mainly rich and they are represented. The $50,000,000.00 raised so far to select Governor Bush as the Republican nominee has come from three-one-hundredths of 1% of the people.
But our government is susceptible to a corporate economic globalization that is not free trade but corporate managed trade. And the global economy is not working yet for most people. But Pat Buchanan is wrong. We can’t build a wall or turn our back on it. We have to work with it.
Why aren’t the Democratic candidates addressing this? They offer their devotion to globalization as if these markets were made by God rather than investors.
Why? Could it possibly be the leading candidates in both parties are, by definition, those who have raised the most money from these same sources? We don’t need a third party. We need a second party.
Does anyone doubt that campaign contributions help buy subsidies for nuclear, coal and oil while solar and wind energy go pretty much unattended or that campaign contributions set ridiculously underpriced fees for private grazing, mining and lumbering on public lands, or cause the 70 to 80 billion dollar digital spectrum to be given away to the broadcasters for nothing in the telecommunications bill that both Democratic candidates supported?
A democracy becomes a plutocracy under these conditions. A state in which the wealthy class rules.
If the complete campaign costs, including primaries, of the last two cycles of all federal campaigns in ’96 and ’98 are combined, it comes to $3,600,000,000.00 for the four years. With complete public financing, that would cost the public about $3.50 per person per year. What a small price for the people to pay for knowing their elected representatives don’t owe anything to anybody but the public and will spend their tax dollars honestly.
The public will never have Democracy until it’s willing to pay the bill for it. Aren’t we willing to spend three and a half dollars a year to get our government back?