Up for grabs.
After suffering through eight years of Bill Clinton's neoliberalism, progressives are now prevailing on issue after issue.
On health care, Dennis Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun, and Al Sharpton all have come out for a single-payer system. And by staking this moral high ground, they have forced the other candidates to come up with at least partial measures to insure more Americans, especially children. With forty-three million citizens uninsured, this is an issue that won't go away. And no Medicare flimflam by Bush will solve it.
On civil liberties, every Democrat has taken it to Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft. John Edwards has been particularly outspoken, stressing the vast powers that Ashcroft and Bush have arrogated to themselves, including the power to hold U.S. citizens in prison indefinitely and not charge them with a crime, not let them see a lawyer, and not let them appear in court. (Edwards, however, does not have a sufficient answer when asked why he voted for the USA Patriot Act. "Well, here's the reality about the Patriot Act," he said at the Des Moines debate. "There are provisions in the Patriot Act which never get any attention which do good things. Al Gore recognized these. A lot of the commentators since have.")
John Kerry recently picked up the civil liberties issue, as well. In an Iowa speech on December 1, he criticized the Bush Administration's excesses. "They have used police powers in secret ways and for political purposes," he said. "It is time to end the era of John Ashcroft." (Kerry, too, voted for the Patriot Act. Here's how he explained that vote in his Iowa speech: "It clearly wasn't a perfect bill--and it had a number of flaws--but this wasn't the time to haggle. It was the time to act.")
When the gay marriage issue came up, several candidates--including Moseley Braun, Sharpton, Edwards, Kerry, and Clark--stressed the importance of looking at it as a civil rights, equal rights, and human rights issue. Kerry, however, did vacillate when he said, "I think the term 'marriage' gets in the way."
On tax fairness, each Democrat has made the case--and it's an easy one--that the Bush Administration's economic policies reward the wealthiest individuals and the corporations, while the bulk of the American people are left to fend for themselves.
On the environment, one Democrat after another has gone after Bush's abysmal record, from Kyoto to "Clean Skies" and "Healthy Forests."
But on some other issues, the Democrats do resemble the old Bill Clinton. Howard Dean, for one, supports welfare reform and capital punishment, two issues that Clinton used to sail into the White House.
And on overall economic policy, most of the candidates heaped so much praise on Clinton's policies that it looked as though the former President won several of the Democratic debates. In particular, the willingness of Kerry and Dean to embrace balancing the budget as a key element of their economic policies should give us pause. Reducing the deficit almost always means cutting social programs.
On trade issues, only Dick Gephardt, Kucinich, and Sharpton made the strong case against NAFTA, the World Trade Organization, and the Free Trade Area of the Americas. The other candidates paid lip service to strengthening labor and environmental side agreements, but those won't get at the essence of these pacts, which is to elevate the untrammeled pursuit of profit over everything else.
Still, the political direction this year is unmistakable. The talk is not about "New Democrats" anymore, and no one is demagoguing on the race issue (e.g., Sister Souljah) the way Clinton did. Even Al Gore, when he endorsed Dean, spoke of the need to reclaim the Democratic Party.
It is on the war issue that the grassroots progressive movement has made its presence felt the most. Any candidate who voted in favor of the Iraq War--Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry, and Lieberman--has had a lot of explaining to do, and they've done it poorly. They may thunder now against Bush's unilateralism, but we could not count on them when it mattered most. Wesley Clark also looked foolish early on with his opportunistic flip-flopping on this issue.
Only Kucinich and Sharpton have opposed the war from beginning to end, and they are the only two who are demanding that the U.S. troops come home now. Kucinich has been the most vehement: Bring the U.N. in, and the U.S. out, he says at every opportunity.
But many anti-war folks have lined up behind Howard Dean, even though he is for leaving the troops there, saying he is concerned about what might happen to Iraq if the troops leave right away. (Others, like Clark and Lieberman, want even more troops.)
Dean launched his campaign with his foresighted and outspoken criticism of the war, and he still scores heavily when he excoriates Gephardt and Kerry for taking the Democratic Party along for the war ride. His supporters view him as more electable than Kucinich, even though the latter has carried the progressive banner down the line, including issuing a refreshing call to eliminate nuclear weapons.
The whole electability question is a loaded one. Kucinich barely got any media attention during the campaign, even when he performed well in a few of the debates. It's hard to appear electable when you get precious little ink or air time. (On the other hand, Kucinich hasn't run a perfect campaign, either. And he often has come across as almost robotic in his delivery.)
We should recognize, however, at the Dean phenomenon is a progressive one. Whatever the flaws of the candidate himself, and they are significant, we are witnessing a peace-oriented, participatory campaign the likes of which we haven't seen since the days of Eugene McCarthy.
Making ingenious use of the Internet, the Dean campaign has enlisted hundreds of thousands of supporters. And it has persuaded many of those supporters to get actively involved in the campaign: writing letters, hosting house parties, and rounding up friends, colleagues, and family members.
Dean's fundraising prowess, which also comes from the campaign's Internet genius, has enabled his candidacy to become much less reliant on fat cats. Only Dean and Kucinich are raising more than 50 percent of their funds in contributions under $200. All the other candidates are relying for the bulk of their contributions on individual checks of $2,000 each. How many Americans can whip out their checkbooks and write that many zeroes? Dean's huge base of small donations enables him to keep going back for more, since his supporters can continue to give more small donations, while the wealthy contributors max out at $2,000.
This style of fundraising may be the only way Democrats will be able to compete with the oodles of cash that Bush has stashed away for the donnybrook to come.
But can the Democrats win? According to several recent polls, the electorate is split 45-to-45 right now. So, despite all of Bush's advantages, the Democratic nominee will be within striking distance of the President.
It's quite conceivable that a Democrat could make up the remaining ground.
Number one, Bush has ensnared himself in Iraq. While he hastily posted an artificial hand-off date of June 2004, this won't be practical. And he still plans on having more than 100,000 troops in the country afterwards. The insurgency shows no signs of dwindling. If U.S. troops keep getting killed over there, Bush may not be able to get out of the Iraq trap he set for himself. And his "bring 'em on" taunt may come back to haunt him.
Number two, the economy is simply not producing jobs. "Since the recession ended twenty-four months ago in November 2001, 726,000 jobs have disappeared--an 0.6 percent contraction," says the Economic Policy Institute. "This is the first time since monthly job statistics began in 1939 that there has not been positive growth in jobs for two years after a recession ended."
In this job-loss recovery, the manufacturing sector--traditionally with the highest-paid workers--has taken the biggest hit, bleeding 2.4 million jobs. "In the last two years, manufacturing employment declined by ... 9.1 percent," the Economic Policy Institute notes. "That record is far worse than the first two years following any previous recession." The manufacturing sector has lost jobs for an astonishing forty months in a row.
For Bush, this spells trouble, especially in Ohio, with twenty electoral votes, and a lot of idle and irate manufacturing workers. Bush took Ohio last time. He may not be so lucky this time around.
Also going for Democrats is the lack of enthusiasm for a leftwing third party challenge. Four years ago, after seeing the Democrats move rightward for eight years and after watching their views vanish from the political debate, many progressives threw themselves into the Green Party's Ralph Nader campaign. But this season, recognizing how dangerous Bush has turned out to be, few progressives are likely to side with Nader or the Greens. (And those stubborn but principled people who do so would probably not vote Democratic in any circumstance.)
"For the sake of peace, democracy, social justice, and racial equality, George W. Bush must be defeated in 2004," reads an open letter to the left, entitled "Bush Can Be Stopped." The letter, signed by such leftwing luminaries as Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Ossie Davis, Manning Marable, Elizabeth Martinez, and Pete Seeger, says it's imperative for leftists to work to defeat Bush. "The forthcoming election is unlike any other in recent memory," it states. "The Bush Administration, arguably the most rightwing in the nation's history, has sought to effect a qualitative change of frightening proportions in the conduct of the nation's foreign and domestic policies."
With almost everyone ranging from Joe Lieberman to Noam Chomsky eager to defeat Bush, the Democratic nominee ought to have a chance. And if that nominee manages to boost the turnout of African Americans, Latinos, working women, and activist students, things would look up for the Democrats.
The Presidential election is sure to be one of the most polarized in decades. The rightwing is organized and united behind Incurious George. The left and the Democrats are energized as never before to put his reign to an end.
Intervening events may prove decisive. Another terrorist attack against the United States, horrible as it is to contemplate, would likely boost Bush's ratings (and could, in the view of now-retired General Tommy Franks, bring about martial law!). A flare-up elsewhere (say, in North Korea, though Bush may have that up his sleeve for his next term) might also play to his advantage, as would the sudden capture or killing of Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein.
But barring these developments, the Democratic nominee ought to have a fighting chance. If he puts up a fight.