We the people have driven the Dems to populism

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Some random thoughts on the 2004 Presidential race

The oddest thing has happened. There has been a sudden outbreak of Democrats in the most unexpected of places: inside the Democratic Party. In an unscripted and most welcome surprise, this year’s race for the Democratic presidential nomination is dominated not by the usual gaggle of neoliberal, corporate-controlled, cross-dressing Republicrats who prissily refer to themselves as “New Democrats,” but by.. well, Democrats.

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Credit the outsiders, which first and foremost includes people like you and me—the mavericks and mad-as-hellers within America’s electorate who’re looking for someone to stand up to Emperor Bush and say aloud that not only does this emperor have no clothes, but he’s buck-naked and butt-ugly on a vast array of issues. Unlike the nambypamby Democratic leaders in Congress who kowtow to George W. and the corporate lobbyists, some of the party’s ’04 contenders seem to have noticed that there’s a rising prairie fire of grassroots rebellion against business-as-usual in America. Rather than turn their backs on us, some of these candidates actually are reaching out to tap into the heat.

Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun, and Al Sharpton (all outsiders who are unannointed by the money powers and disdained by the Washington cognoscenti) have been the leaders, forcing the presidential debate onto progressive/populist ground. They have insisted on talking about issues that really matter and that can catch the ear of the workaday majority that has long been abandoned by both parties and mostly has not been voting: health care for all, job-busting trade scams, the travails of the working poor, the destruction of middle-class wages, tax fairness, the pollution of our air and water, the wholesale invasion of our privacy, the looting of our pensions, public education, drug prices, corporate corruption, the undermining of our most basic civil liberties, and Bush’s autocratic push to make the world safe for Halliburton.

Instead of the timid, minimalist, Republican-lite agenda long dictated by the corporate wing of the party (embodied in the fusty, corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council), this election is being driven by a new political dynamic. It is overtly progressive in its values and ideas, young in its passion and energy, inherently antiestablishment, grassroots and coalition-minded in its organizing approach, Web-savvy, and has been operating mostly below the outmoded radar of the pundits, media sparklies, oldline pols, and political operatives who, collectively, give us our daily dose of conventional wisdom.

This progressive dynamic is at the core not only of the campaigns of Dean, Kucinch, Moseley Braun and Sharpton, but of the entire race.

With the predictable exception of the DLC’s tired old candidate, Joe Lieberman, all of the Democrats are taking, to varying degrees, progressive positions on the issues and are showing a bit of feistiness in taking on the Bushites. Dick Gephardt pounding away on NAFTA, John Edwards on Ashcroft’s suspension of our Bill of Rights, John Kerry on Bush’s tax giveaways to the rich (a class that includes him), Wesley Clark on the White House’s lies to rationalize its Saddam obsession—these all reflect an entirely different tone than the dull thud offered by the Democrats in 2000 and 2002. They’re putting a little kick in the Democratic donkey again.

All of this is worthy of our positive reinforcement. Rather than sniff that some candidates aren’t progressive enough, are late coming to their progressive views, aren’t “electable,” or whatever other negative nits we can find to pick—let’s applaud anything and everything that each of them offers, sending the message that this is what we want more of.

Indeed, this insistent grassroots encouragement is what has pushed the debate our way. Take the issue of trade scams. Until last summer, most of the candidates knew next to nothing about the latest scam, the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (see Lowdown, December 2003). But labor, environmentalists, farmers, seniors, and other fair-trade activists pressed all of them on this issue, especially in their Iowa and New Hampshire appearances. Kucinich, Gephardt, and Sharpton came out strongly against the FTAA (as well as against NAFTA, WTO, etc), and were wildly applauded. This issue was quickly forced onto the front burner, and other candidates couldn’t simply blather that “free trade” was good for us, but had to face the issue honestly, scrambling to offer their own palliatives to the abuses of corporate trade deals.

Yes, there are significant differences in the relatively progressive positions of, say, Kucinich (the most progressive) and Clark (still trying to define progressive), but the important phenomenon to note is that all of them are having to measure themselves against the ideals of America’s progressive/ populist constituency—not against the private agendas of corporate contributors. This is huge change in the way the party operates (and for whom), and a long step toward making the Democratic Party relevant to a majority of Americans again.

Kucinich pops Koppel

Forget Iowa, New Hampshire, and the subsequent contests where actual citizens are entrusted with choosing our presidential nominees—we have the hotshots of the media winnowing our choices for us.

Ted Koppel, ABC’s celebrity newsman, who has become almost bloated with his own sense of self-importance in recent years, did not merely moderate a candidates’ debate in Durham, N.H, last month— he entered and tried to dictate the debate, essentially asserting himself as star of the show.

To their credit, the candidates had used their opening statements to put forth the issues central to their campaigns. But issues schmissues, Ted wasn’t interested in anything of substance —he wanted to talk about the gamesmanship stuff of politics that big media players love and the public detests. He started cattily, pouncing on the gossipy matter of whether the various contenders had a sour-grapes reaction to Al Gore’s endorsement of Dean—a matter that few voters put on their list of concerns.

Then this media giant began to badger Kucinich, Moseley Braun, and Sharpton, asking each of them, “Are you in this as a sort of vanity candidacy?” Never mind that these three have been the most substantive and articulate of all, pointedly broadening the debate with specifics that ordinary folks care about—Ted bulled on ahead. Oozing disdain, he targeted Kucinich for elimination from the race, saying: “You’re not doing terribly well with money. You’re doing even worse in the polls. When do you drop out?”

But Ted’s arrogance backfired on him. To a burst of audience applause, Kucinich refused to be bullied by Boss Koppel. “I want the American people to see where the media takes politics in this country. To start [by] talking about endorsements. Now we’re talking about polls. And then we’re talking about money. Well, you know, when you do that, you don’t have to talk about what’s important to the American people.”

To even more applause, Kucinich said: “Ted, I’m the only one up here that actually voted against the Patriot Act. And voted against the war. I’m also one of the few candidates up here who’s talking about taking our health-care system from this for-profit system to a not-for-profit, single-payer system of universal health-care for all. I’m also the only one who has talked about getting out of NAFTA and the WTO and going back to bilateral trade conditioned on workers’ rights, human rights, and the environment. Now I may be inconvenient for some of those in the media, but I’m, you know, sorry about that.”

In a scathing review of Koppel’s performance, Baltimore Sun columnist Jules Witcover noted that “There was a time when news folk were supposed to keep themselves out of the story.” But today’s media barons have appointed themselves arbiters of what candidates and what issues get presented to us on our public airwaves.

The barons who now ridicule the Kuciniches for low visibility are the ones that have excluded them (and their ideas) from coverage. Prior to this debate, the names of Kucinich, Moseley Braun, and Sharpton had not been mentioned even once all year on Koppel’s Nightline show, and ABC’s World News Tonight had mentioned any of the three only 10 times, with only one of those mentions referring to the candidates’ stands on an issue.

The very next day after the debate, ABC pulled its field producers who had been traveling with the Kucinch, Moseley Braun, and Sharpton campaigns, unilaterally eliminating a third of the Democratic contenders from even the possibility of air time. A PR flack for ABC called this withdrawal “a routine coverage decision,” noting that the network would try to stay in touch with the campaigns “by phone.”

The Dean phenomenon

The significant thing about the Dean phenomenon is not Dean, but the phenomenon. Hundreds of thousands of progressive activists—especially young people and other Web-active folks—surged early on into the then-fledgling campaign of this Vermont doctor who previously was a moderate-centrist governor, raised in a well-heeled New York City family. They surged because they’re hungry for a candidate who is not business-as-usual, who’ll reject the corporate coziness of the DLC insiders, who is willing to smack George W. right in his smirking smugness, who is vigorously opposed to the Iraqi diversion—and who is willing to trust ordinary people like them to be key players in his national presidential campaign.

These people, many of them new to politics and not tied to old structures or old ways, are the phenomenon that has fueled Howard Dean’s drive to the top and are changing the political landscape in ways that are still evolving. Dean didn’t create them—they created him.

Is he a populist? No. Kucinich is the clear populist with a lifelong history of unambiguous advocacy of populist principles. But neither is Dean some Clintonesque DLCer who is waiting on a fat campaign contributor, a poll, and a focus group before taking a position.

Dean seems to be his own consultant; he seems to learn as he goes, and he has been taking ever more populist positions as he learns.

Visiting his extensive Web site (www.deanforamerica.com), I was surprised and pleased to find him far more progressive and specific on the issues than his critics claim.

But whatever you think of his degree of progressivism, he certainly is a “cyberpopulist.” With his campaign manager, Joe Trippi, and the help of such innovators as MoveOn.org, he has devised a stunning new way of campaigning that uses the Web to break the grip of the money crowd, the media, and the powerbrokers.

Through online solicitations, the Dean team has already amassed more than $40 million for his campaign, the bulk of it in contributions of under $200 each, freeing him from the old Democrats’ corrupting dependency on corporate givers. But this is only the start of the changes they’ve wrought with the Web, for they have used it to empower their own supporters as grassroots organizers.

• Did Lieberman or the GOP or the media or some political attack group take a nasty swipe at Howard? The Deaners respond directly and instantaneously via a vast network of e-mail blasts and chat rooms, unleashing a flurry of letters-to-the-editor, radio call-ins, and other grassroots responses.

• Want your supporters to gather together? Local Dean organizers are trained to host online meetup sessions, to have house parties (both virtually and in actual houses), to raise funds, to do Web cast rallies, and otherwise to decentralize essential campaign functions.

• Need help in New Hampshire? The Dean team has organized supporters from around the country to send thousands of personal letters to voters in key states and even travel to those states for door-to-door campaigning. The supporters become the campaign, which not only gets more work done for less money, but also enthuses supporters, since they truly matter again.

A final note on the Dean phenomenon: Since it’s an outsider operation, the more it is attacked by insiders, the stronger it becomes. Right-wing talk show- yakkers and pundits now are constantly frothing about Dean, which simply draws more outsiders to the cause. The latest gambit is to warn that Howard is “an angry man,” thus dangerous to have as a leader. Hello, America is filled with angry men and women— angry at an elitist, aloof group of insiders who have kicked them out politically and knocked them down economically. The Democratic establishment has been too mellow too long, and a little kick-butt anger is overdue. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, the populist Democrat of Ohio, put it well when she said of Dean’s feistiness: “We don’t want a wimp in this part of the country. Our people have struggled to make a living, and they want a fighter.”

Beating Bush

Possible? Hell, yes! Even with that Thanksgiving turkey strut he did in Iraq and even with the nabbing of Saddam, he’s still only at 45-45 versus any Democrat. On the deadly Iraqi occupation, the economy, the environment, civil liberties, etc. his numbers are worse.

More significantly, the pollsters don’t measure the red-hot intensity of opposition that the Bush-Cheney- Ashcroft-Rumsfeld policies have generated among everyone from environmentalists to labor. These constituencies were lukewarm about their choices in 2000, but this time they’re fired up, organizing, and unified to get this guy out. I know people who are lined up at their polling places now, refusing to budge until they can cast their ballots against him in November.

In addition, George W. has weaknesses in his own ranks that were not there last time, including Republican women appalled by his environmental assault, high tech workers whose well-paying jobs are being hauled off to India, constitutional conservatives who can’t stomach Bush’s Patriot Act and executive secrecy, and military families who feel used and abused by Bush’s quest for empire.

We know, of course, that stuff happens, and we can expect some wag-the-dog event from Karl Rove’s White House scheme machine later in the year.

But I think they’ve already resorted to that too many times, depleting their credibility. The key will be to have a Democratic nominee who won’t flinch at their political stunts and who will pound them on populist, pocketbook issues that’ll draw more people to the polls.

Let me also note a happy development in the heavens: Astrologers are predicting Bush’s electoral demise. It seems that Saturn is close to the sun, thus illuminating deeply held secrets. The last time this celestial event happened was 30 years ago: Watergate! As one astrologer puts it: “Bush is about to have a major Saturn experience.”

Vote for…Who?

Go with your gut or heart, for this time we have a blessing of progressive choices, from moderately to aggressively progressive. Choose your favorite—BUT don’t be mad at others because they’ve gone with someone else. The greatest need for all of us is to reconvene around April, as soon as the primary elections are done, and to rally as one to defeat this radically regressive regime of right-wing Bushites. These people are nuts … and dangerous to our health, our livelihoods, our planet, our liberties, our egalitarian ideals, and our democracy.

Here’s my second “But”: Don’t be fooled that defeating Bush is a progressive victory. A country song says, “It felt so good when it stopped hurting.” Ridding ourselves of the pain of BushCo will feel good, but it doesn’t restore our democratic health. Remember ’92, when Clinton defeated Daddy Bush. Too many progressive leaders cranked back in their La Z Boys and rested, assuming Bill would take care of our business. That didn’t work out too well.

Whichever Democrat defeats George W. will immediately be confronted with the Tom DeLays in Congress, an army of naysaying corporate lobbyists, a hostile media establishment, avaricious Wall Street manipulators, the military-industrial complex, and other forces of “No.” Beating Bush is merely the start. The next day, we must redouble our efforts to build and unite a true grassroots political movement that not only can elect progressive local officials, governors, Congress members, senators, and presidents—but also can sustain them in office with organized grassroots power so that our officials can govern as progressives.

I’m making moves!

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