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Postcards from The Old Country


When you travel, you learn things. And here’s something that’s pretty interesting but completely taken for granted by most people inside Democratic Party politics: The Democratic party machinery works for one person and one cause, the presidential ambitions of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It’s so obvious to party insiders, it goes without saying, which is itself a measure of just how inside an insider’s game the coverage and talk of politics has become. “That’s news?” asks one who pronounces himself utterly opposed to the idea. “We don’t have the DNC,” says a big contributor talking in matter-of-fact tones about individual Democrats inability to look past their particular issue (choice, Israel, the Iraqi War) to the party’s goals as a whole. Why? There is no one to unite Democrats because its strongest organization, run by a close friends of the Clintons, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, is concentrating on Sen. Clinton’s career.
It makes former vice president Al Gore’s anger a lot more understandable, doesn’t it? Guess we now know why he really endorsed Howard Dean. But here’s something else. Gore’s frustration – sometimes articulated, sometimes surfacing as free-floating annoyance or impatience – is pretty much all over the place. It’s the disgust with “politics as usual.” It’s what’s got millionaire Democrat Steve Kirsch so upset. It’s the gentle murmur in the background at events like the Personal Democracy Forum and other “remaking politics” seminars It’s why Independent voters are the second largest registered voting block in San Francisco. It’s why Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger got elected and why Silicon Valley may go Republican. People who like to call themselves Democrats aren’t being served by their party and they know it.
There’s no thesis or theme uniting Democrats anymore, and no one seems to be looking for one, either. As San Francisco saw in the last mayoral race, the high-minded “progressives” of the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements are on a nostalgia trip for the time when their efforts mattered. The Democratic Party’s social agenda – once its main theme — has been thoroughly dismantled by former President Bill Clinton. He’s been brilliant about it, focusing he enthusiasm for the party’s just causes, and leavening it with ‘centrist’ policies that sound good to Baby Boomers and economic policies that satisfy Wall Street, all the while claiming political reality keeps him from being more liberal.
As he was running, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean tried to articulate this problem for outsiders, saying he represented the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” His contention that a losing candidate was the candidate who would do anything to win resonated – particularly with political newcomers and those outside the insider’s game — because it was a flat repudiation of the Clintons. Bill Clinton, the most gifted politician of our age, ran a campaign and a presidency that said, in essence, he could do whatever it took to win office because he was a good guy, a Democrat (for more, much more, along these lines, check out Robert Sam Anson’s very good and very long Clinton profile in the June Vanity Fair). It was – it is — a cynical hollowing out of the Democratic Party’s supposed commitment to high-minded principles like helping the poor, educating the ignorant and aiding the sick. In Clinton’s world, we can – we should — throw a few people off the bus in the name of victory. Besides, they were dragging us down anyway, they don’t vote, do they?
The argument against this – you would prefer a Bush re-election? — is no more legitimate. It’s an extension of the cynicism claiming Democrats’ new tactics are justified because Republicans are better funded, pro-war, the tools of big business and the oil companies – whatever excuse you’d like. But they’re still excuses. And, by the way, you want to point fingers and make accusations about polarization, this sort of excuse-mongering (they’re bad, we’re good, they have more money, we have to cut corners) is why Democrats are just as responsible as Republicans.
All this top-down politicking is fueling big changes in the Democratic Party, changes that might just upset the Clinton’s best-laid plans. It’ll take another five years – maybe longer if John Kerry wins the presidency – but there are other shifts in the works, shifts that may fracture the party even more. Some of this is connected to the new uses that frustrated political activists are finding for the ‘net. Some of it has to do with bi-partisan endorsements and other odd bedfellow arrangements being made outside Washington.
But here’s the rub: Many of the Democrats who are the most restive are, in many ways, as self-centered and self-obsessed as the folks currently running things. Made rich during the tech-driven boom of the late 1990’s, their sense of commitment to what is increasingly a nation of immigrants, a nation without a Middle Class, a nation without a foreign policy in an age of increasing interconnectedness (this, in the end, will be seen as Clinton’s fault, his sad and horrible legacy) and a nation facing tremendous and for the most part self-inflicted economic woes, is not complete. Fragile ties bind Democrats together. And no one is really trying to keep them from fraying even more. The Progressive Libertarians that I write about here – those business-minded nominal Democrats – could just as easily flood Republican Party ranks. Given a few more years of frustration, their flight and fight may, in the end, be the Clintons’ lasting and clearly unintended contribution to American politics.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 10:07 AM | Permalink

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