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President Piggly Wiggly.

I had planned this column as a stock-taking of the Clinton Administration from the standpoint of the Left. But now why belabor the obvious? The Clinton Presidency is rapidly giving the lie to every familiar--and generally heretofore credible--argument about why it's better for us to have Democrats rather than Republicans in the White House.

Pick a policy issue. The always inadequate and largely regressive economic-stimulus package has long since evaporated to nothing, as has the proposed tax on overseas transactions by U.S. multinationals. The vaunted national health-care initiative has contracted to only one possibility--the insurers' boondoggle of "managed competition," and clear pursuit of even that least-adequate option has been shelved. Bill Clinton's urban policy is identical to Ronald Reagan's. The Administration persists in discussing what is usually considered social-welfare policy only in a punitive, moralizing language driven by exhortations to "personal responsibility." And, as the early appointments of Lloyd Bentsen, Leon Panetta, and Richard Rubin signaled, Clinton has delegated control of the boundaries of the thinkable to the investment bankers and the "deficit hawks" who safeguard their interests, thus guaranteeing tepidness and capitulationism with respect to any initiatives requiring public spending.

The Administration has moved steadily to the right even on the symbolic front. The coup de grace was the one-two punch of appointing Republican mouthpiece David Gergen to replace wunderschmuck George Stephanopoulos and dumping Lani Guinier as a Justice Department nominee in the same week.

Guinier has a clear and impressive record as a voting-rights litigator. But the White House, in discussing her nomination, consistently focused instead on her long personal friendship with the First Couple. (Is it gauche to wonder whether Bill and Hillary returned Guinier's wedding gift after making her into a burnt offering to Sam Nunn and the Democratic Leadership Council?)

The Guinier nomination reflects the cronyism that has run through Clinton's pattern of appointments. Like Jimmy Carter--who alienated Beltway insiders and made former staffer James Fallows a journalistic celebrity for exposing it all in The Atlantic--Clinton has sought to stock his inner circle with old friends. Unlike Carter's network, though, the Friends Of Bill are not limited to pals from homestate politics. Many FOBs--for instance, Robert Reich, Ira Magaziner, and Guinier--come from Clinton's early association with Ivy League liberalism.

Guinier's ties to the Clintons stood out to the White House more than her public actions and beliefs. No doubt her status as a black female with an impressive pedigree of credentials heightened her attractiveness. It is, indeed, plausible that neither the President nor many central staff members actually read Guinier's law-review articles.

As my colleague Rogers Smith observed, this failure to attend seriously to Guinier's scholarly work indicates the low priority the Administration has assigned to civil-rights enforcement. The President is, after all, a Yale Law School product and prides himself on liking to pore over policy papers. The ease and verve with which Clinton embraced and retailed Guinier's critics' racist sophistries about the significance of her theories suggest that he does not much differ from Bush when it comes to the Voting Rights Act and political empowerment for minorities.

The "centrists" were hostile to Guinier's nomination all along and sniped at her repeatedly. There can be little doubt, however, that Clinton's appointment of Gergen--former staffer for Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Reagan--emboldened their attacks. A week before he became White House counsellor, Gergen opined in his pundit role that Clinton was "fighting to protect the left side of his party, fighting against the moderates--politically that is exactly the wrong place for him to be in this country. He ought to be on the side of the moderates fighting off the left side of the party." Appointing Gergen to a visible post in the Administration sent a strong and unambiguous signal that Clinton was set to roll over for the Right. In a matter of days he caved in on the Guinier nomination. There is no longer any doubt about which political forces have the upper hand in this Presidency.

Two questions remain: Is it possible to push the balance of power in a more progressive direction? And what does this mean for the Left?

Understanding Clinton's opportunism is the key to answering the first question. From the beginning, his running dogs have tried to make Clinton palatable to the Left, labor, and the like, by claiming that he is really a liberal who just mouths Democratic Leadership Council pieties as a concession to realpolitik. Robert Borosage, for instance, was able to recycle the same line he used four years ago about Jesse Jackson's opportunism to present Clinton's as a virtue--an indication of openness, if not malleability. Slavering policy-jock academics would sputter, through the drool stimulated by their anticipation of proximity to power, that we should pay no attention to Big Bill's right-wing record in Arkansas--the only record he had--because he was just going along with the state's political realities.

There is, of course, no disputing Clinton's opportunism. Anyone who seeks, much less wins, major elective office in the United States has to be principally an opportunist. In Clinton, that trait lies closer to the core of his character than in others. (As a fellow boomer and anti-Vietnam war activist just about the President's age, what I found most striking, and chilling, about Clinton's now-famous draft-dodging letter is that he was already mapping out his political career and trying to cover all the bases. Some in those heady times were more vulnerable than others, I suppose, to the impulse to take stances that might jeopardize conventional career paths.) Now that he is in the White House, we see that all he can do is run for office.

A mid the hoopla about plans for a policy blitz in the first hundred days, I could not for a while figure out why the Administration was acting like a football team that tries to run out the clock upon receiving the opening kickoff. Things became clearer when Clinton and Ross Perot began exchanging barbs: President Piggly Wiggly, his eye ever on the main chance, is already campaigning for 1996. Whatever programmatic agenda he may have contemplated would now be geared to pursuing an advantage in public-opinion polls. (Arkansas governors serve two-year terms, so he is probably predisposed to take the inauguration as a signal to start the new campaign.)

But opportunism is never pure and not quite so simple as to suffice for explanation in politics. The critical point is that Clinton is an opportunist who operates within the DLC's vision of American political reality.

It is no accident that Clinton is so concerned about Perot. The welfare billionaire's social base is the one that in the DLC's vision should be the backbone of the Democratic Party. As Clinton's constant invocation of the "middle class" and "personal responsibility" slogans indicates, this Administration presumes that the key element of the electorate is the white suburban and exurban constituency that responds favorably to messages of fiscal conservatism. All along Clinton has labored to demonstrate to this constituency that he is not beholden to minorities or others associated with the party's stable voting bloc and liberal wing.

Thus the Clinton Administration has catered to its right flank, taking great care to preempt criticism from that quarter and responding fulsomely to overcome that which does occur. The left flank has received quite a different message: be quiet; make no demands, or we won't talk to you at all.

For all its smug appeals to pragmatism, however, this strategy is self-defeating. Opportunism can undo itself because of its dogmatic refusal to challenge the sanctity of an idealized status quo. Let me give two examples: Clinton's tepid approach to economic policy and the DLC's failed Super Tuesday strategy of 1988.

As Gar Alperovitz noted in the June issue of The Progressive, the Clinton economic policy, with its focus on balancing the budget, promises over the next four years to retard economic growth and reduce jobs. Even Clinton's Labor Secretary and crony Robert Reich said recently, "The ideal scenario would be a strong stimulus, and then once the economy was back on track ... serious deficit reduction. But this is not a political climate in which John Maynard Keynes would flourish."

Even when the stakes are high, Clinton and the DLC exhibit a self-destructive tendency to ignore reality. And so they persist, doing what the right wing tells them to do, while it seems ever more likely that this will be another one-term, feckless, conservative Democratic Presidency.

DLC strategists invented the Super Tuesday Democratic Presidential primary format to maximize the South's clout in the candidate-selection process. In 1988, the presumed beneficiary of this tactic was DLC poster boy Al Gore (whose attacks on Michael Dukakis, incidentally, gave George Bush and Lee Atwater the Willie Horton idea).

What the plan overlooked, simply, was the fact that since the 1965 Voting Rights Act, blacks have gained more electoral power in the Southern states than anywhere else. Thus, the actual Democratic electorate in the South is among the most liberal. This is an astounding oversight, since reducing black visibility in the party is one of the primary objectives that spawned the DLC in the first place. Its ideologues made a classic error: They convinced themselves that the image they wanted to project and call into existence--an ultimately nostalgic picture of a white, male Democratic party in the South--was already real.

Gore's campaign fizzled after Super Tuesday. He didn't emerge as a front-runner in part because Jesse Jackson scored an impressive percentage by garnering nearly all of the black vote. Although its candidate suffered, the DLC may have gotten something out of Jackson's success. Jackson embodied the trope of divisive black demands, and his presence in the race helped the argument that the party's electoral strategy should center on disaffected whites--the so-called Reagan Democrats.

Not long after Clinton's inauguration, the Left Business Observer's Doug Henwood and I mused that the silver lining in the Administration's outrageously capitulationist start was that it probably would knock the shackles from many of its left-liberal apologists' eyes. We probably should have known better. Faint hopes of sniffing the raiments of power were already justifying all manner of evil--behind the fashionably exculpatory reference to realpolitik, of course.

I recall a dinner party during the primaries at the home of a colleague, an economist and upper-level operative in the poverty-research industry. She and others automatically defended and excused every blemish on Clinton's record, dismissing objections as naive about what a Democrat must do now to win. Exasperated and somewhat emotional, I raised the case of Rickey Ray Rector (admittedly a pet peeve of mine--see the April 1993 issue), the brain-damaged black convict whose execution Clinton went home to oversee during the campaign to prove that he's not soft on crime. Our host, a white, tenured professor with solid liberal credentials, responded blithely, with a tuttutting wave of the hand, that of course any Democrat who can win will have to support the death penalty and we must simply accept that. I thought then, but in a fit of graciousness refrained from saying, that's easy for you to do, isn't it?

I wondered as well where this reasoning would end. Picture it: "Now, now, you must understand, any Democrat who can win must support ... (forced sterilization, repeal of the 1964 civil-rights law and Reconstruction amendments, sending the niggers back to Africa)."

Some, like Letty Pogrebin in Tikkun, insist in Orwellian fashion that it's not enough that we quietly vote for and accept President Piggly Wiggly as a lesser evil, we must enthusiastically support him.

In The Progressive it's easy to attack those who cozy up to power. But there's a problem on the other end of the Left continuum that is equally pernicious, the tendency to dismiss electoral politics in general and the struggles within the Democratic Party in particular as inauthentic or evidence of cooptation. That tendency helped to pave the way for the current DLC hegemony by diverting the Left into a politics of wish fulfilment, while being pimped by Jesse Jackson. (Let me say here, for the first time in print, apropos of the apparent denouement of the Jackson saga: See, I told you so.)

At the national level, the Left may well be on the way to being purged from the Party completely. Read what postures the Administration takes on welfare and crime, what kind of budget it finally accepts, and what happens with the horrible NAFTA.

It may be possible for us to have some influence on those outcomes, but only by trying to mobilize around concrete policy issues and alternatives--not, that is, by trying to slip a really smart position paper to a possibly sympathetic legislator, nor by simply demanding that the voices of the locked-out be heard.

It is long since time for us to revert to the only power the Left has, particularly in times like these: the power to disrupt the normal functioning of the institutions whose directions we would alter. It certainly is time also to break with the illusory short-cut of trying to build a movement through national electoral campaigns--protest or otherwise.

We need to be more nuanced in our thinking about what the Democratic Party is. Two points stand out: First, as we descend from the level of national politics, it is steadily more difficult to see a coherent entity heading in the same direction. State and local parties are messy coalitions that vary enormously. Second, pending the outcome of what seems to be the purge attempt now under way, there is no vehicle other than the Democratic Party within which it is possible to articulate any sort of Left agenda in national politics. We have to face that fact.

The Left may be purged; that is now quite likely beyond our control. And if it happens, we'll, have to find ways to intervene in political debate that break through the deafening white noise of the reigning conventions. We need to be, that is, what we should have been all along but seem to have forgotten how to be--a fighting Left.
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Author:Reed, Adolph, Jr.
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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