For eleven months prior to the November election, I spent lots of time in Vermont working with rail workers to stop the sale of the Central Vermont Railroad to a Texas outfit that specializes in buying railroads and firing employees. Working alongside Congressman Bernie Sanders was one of the great pleasures I have experienced. He never shied from the task, never minced words, knew which side he was on, and told both management and the workers that he had made a choice.
In a word, he would have driven the Democratic Leadership Council completely nuts. No one with his views could win a statewide election in today's conservative climate, the DLC argued. No, the goal is to get away from labor, break from the past, become more like "them," and we "Democrats" will win. Pogo might ask, "Who is we?"
Something strange happened at the polls on November 8. Bernie Sanders won 50 percent to 47 percent with the help of rural voters, suburban voters, and many who voted for moderate Republican Jim Jeffords for the Senate and who gave Republicans big gains in the State Legislature. As Bernie put it, "Workers, family farmers, and the seniors know I'm on their side." They know something else. They know a genuine article when they see it and hear it. Bernie didn't need a poll to decide to get on the side of the rail workers. He didn't call Washington to find out if it was safe to oppose Monsanto's rBGH for cows. He did what his conscience told him to do, and the people responded. While Sanders was winning his third term with old-fashioned values and progressive positions, how did the DLC do?
Take a look at Tennessee, where potential Senate majority leader Jim Sasser was seeking re-election. I watched in horror as Sasser, a DLC devotee, started calling for prayer in school in his TV ads and, of course, went with the DLC litany of issues: welfare and crime. DLC head Al From and Bill Clinton's pollster, Stanley Greenberg, devised this strategy, and it failed miserably. Representative Jim Cooper and Jim Sasser, pure models of the "new Democrats," lost their races, as did other Southern conservatives, as the Republicans won both Houses of Congress for the first time in forty years.
I suspect the reason many of these Democrats lost was because people could tell they weren't being themselves. They were mimicking someone else's message. Somehow, Democrats responding to the agenda of fear and loathing set by the Republicans sounded tinny. There was something wrong with the Party of the People sounding like the mean-spirited Doles and Newts who want to lock 'em up, throw away the key, take the children from their mothers, and blame the poor for poverty.
It was a stunning defeat for the DLC. Whatever happened to the party of LBJ, Hubert Humphrey, Harry Truman, and the Kennedys who called on us to share the burden? Where was the passion for those less fortunate? Where was the anger at the loss of jobs to Mexico? Where was the outrage at "downsizing"? Where the dismay about our schools falling apart? Where the disgust about GATT and how it would destroy the small family farm and water down our environmental and consumer protection laws in the name of free trade? It was nowhere. The campaign issues were crime and punishment, welfare cheats and free-loaders, crime and punishment. It didn't resonate and it never will. No one spoke for working people holding down two and three jobs. Many are just a few paychecks away from welfare. If there is a boom, they don't feel it. No one spoke for the Ringier workers of New Berlin, Wisconsin, thrown out on the street by a multinational corporation despite the fact that the plant was profitable. "You don't think it will happen to you because I didn't either," one Ringier worker said with tears in his eyes. "You think because you are making 15 bucks an hour that the Republicans will take care of you—I voted Republican. Well, let me tell you, it will happen to you. They will take your job and the Republicans don't give a damn." That message resonates with working people.
To watch the DLC spin doctors explain this election debacle has been almost as humorous as listening to Dan Rostenkowski claim, "Truth is on my side." The DLC tells us truth is on its side. Those who brought us the Clinton craving for a balanced budget, the love affair with Alan "I'll get you into a recession for the '96 election" Greenspan, NAFTA, and three strikes and you're out, have now stepped forward. Stan Greenberg, who reportedly received more than $2 million from the Democratic National Committee and the White House for polling over the past two years, joined Al From at a news conference to announce that the solution is simple: "Move to the right." They should have come in clown outfits to remind us of RT. Barnum's famous line, "There's a sucker born every minute." After all, it was the findings of Greenberg that created the Democratic agenda for 1994. Now he says, "Oops, that didn't work so let's try again but this time with feeling."
It takes a lot of gall to argue that Clinton went too far to the left. Was it Ron Brown at Commerce, Lloyd Bentsen at Treasury, Warren Christopher at State, or Bob Rubin who dragged Clinton kicking and screaming to the left? Was it Mickey Kantor, craftsman of the NAFTA and GATT strategy, who gave Clinton this lefty label? Or was it the decision to go with the big-insurance-company and bighospital health-care plan that made a Pentagon organizational chart seem elementary? Tell us, Stan. Don't hold back. Should he have said, "One strike and you are out," or how about, "Two months on welfare and the kid goes to the orphanage"?
And while you're at it, how about explaining why Bernie Sanders pulled off his victory, or why David Bonior, Democrat from Michigan, the hero of the anti- NAFTA debate, won with 62 percent of the vote, or why Ted Kennedy overwhelmed Mitt Romney with old-fashioned liberalism?
Let's discuss the real situation in America today as viewed by a Democrat who argued, election after election, with Erwin Knoll that it matters if you vote. And almost every time, Erwin was right. But I begin with a strong belief that the American people are neither mean-spirited nor ideological. They want to help those who need help, they believe the wealthy should shoulder their fair share of the burden, and they are pragmatists. As FDR put it best, "If there is a problem, do something. If it doesn't work, try something else but do something." They don't understand "neo-liberal" or "neo-conservative," they don't watch The McLaughlin Group, nor do they wait on every word by George Will. They do, however, know if you are on their side or not. And for the past twenty years, the Democratic Party has drifted away from them.
When the PAC revolution began twenty years ago, the handwriting was on the wall. Instead of dealing with the illness, the Congressional Democrats simply joined the fray and told big business it had better contribute or its legislation would never see the light of day. And contribute it did—millions of dollars for incumbent Democrats, not for reasons of conscience but for reasons of expediency. And that was the death of the Party of the People. Soon there were not two parties across the country; there were two parties in each of the 435 House districts and 200 Senate districts. Each candidate or incumbent became a party. No standards, no forms, no exams, no permission needed. And so, a Richard Shelby of Alabama could say, "I'm a Democrat," and no one asked "Why?" These little parties announced, hired staff, raised money, raised money, and raised money. The Democratic Party became irrelevant except as a funnel for what is known as soft money. As the arithmetic became obvious to candidates, they soon figured out that if organized labor and liberal PACs gave them every allowable dollar, that was about enough to hire competent fundraisers to go after the big corporate money but not enough to run a campaign. The message to the little guy was clear: "We don't need your money, your phone banks, your door knockers. Just be quiet and vote." The Republicans are for the rich and controlled by big business, so it is not news that they get millions from those sources. The man-bites-dog-and-dog-dies story is that the Party of the People was purchased by big business. Once that occurred, few if any legislative victories could be counted by the most loyal Democrats, including African Americans and labor-union members.
As an AFT member said to a labor meeting in Bloomington, Indiana, the week of the election, "If the Democrats have controlled Congress for most of the past forty years, surely we have card-check recognition, arbitration of first contracts, triple back-pay for those fired for organizing a union, strike-breaker legislation, don't we?" You know the answer. Fact is, labor has been reduced to the role of collection agencies at the local level to give money to the Washington-based political director, who gives it to the legislative Democrats. What has been left for the rest of the folks? An annual or semi-annual convention that features legislative incumbent speakers who urge re-election for all. The once-proud grass-roots Party of the People is now reduced to a social event. Washington-based political advisers, attached by an umbilical cord to the super PACs known as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, tell the candidates that it is all in television. They tell the candidate to raise money and hold news conferences and all will go well.
Why bother going to the union halls, the city parks, the farm meetings when a TV spot will reach thousands or even hundreds of thousands? The consultants get lots of money. But in 1994, those selected by the consultants and the campaign committees did not defeat a single Republican. Not one. And who helps direct those folks? You got it, Al From and Stan Greenberg.
Can people be motivated, and can the grass roots respond? No question about it. In Wisconsin alone, workers marched to Madison and even occupied the Senate until a vote was promised on a bill authorizing the state to seize plants to save jobs by asserting eminent domain. Those people marched, lobbied, and they voted. Rail workers in Vermont voted and helped those candidates who spoke to their issues. But to do this on a national scale we must first free ourselves of the burden of the Dan Rostenkowskis, the Al Froms, and the Stan Greenbergs, and re-establish a Democratic Party with a conscience. Or, if the old habits are too hard to change, we have to form a new party. We must skip the $l,000-a-plate dinners at fancy hotels to honor Jefferson and Jackson, and turn to $5 bean feeds to honor Jesse Jackson and Ralph Nader.
When you think about it, who elected From and Greenberg anyway? Can the Democratic Party be saved? I don't know but at least now there is a chance. So long as they could always say, "Look, you didn't like NAFTA, you didn't like the budget, you don't like GATT, you don't like the appointments, but: (a) it would be worse under Bush, and (b) if you don't vote for us, Jesse Helms will head Foreign Relations, Orrin Hatch at Labor, and Newt Gingrich will be Speaker." Well, it has happened, but not on our watch. It happened on the DLC watch.