Democracy Deadlocked

This is a dispatch from purgatory--the purgatory to which we've all been condemned until this business about the identity of our next president is cleared up. I'd never realized until quite late on election night just how nervous purgatory can make a person. This particular purgatory is finite, endless though it may seem; you know that something either better or worse awaits on January 20. Unless you voted for Ralph Nader, however, exactly what awaits is a matter of some moment. (If you voted for Nader, the fate of mere people and nations--indeed, the effect of your vote on mere people and nations--is as naught next to the eternal verities that Nader proclaimed and that won 2.6 percent of voters' support on election day.)

Still, from the vantage point of purgatory, it's becoming clear that whether it's George W. Bush or Al Gore who finally takes the oath, the sheer closeness of the election will constrain his administration. Should Bush win, the Republicans will control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue for the first time since 1954, but the payoff will be the lowest on record. At no point in American history have the margins in both houses of Congress and of the president's victory been so slim.

Gore, however, would be less constrained than Bush, for both candidates ran at least in part on Gore's center-left agenda. In Bush's case, of course, it was an act. His campaign was a masterpiece of deception and indirection, if not downright imposture. Rather than acknowledge his actual positions, W. touted their opposites: He, too, had a prescription drug plan, favored a patients' bill of rights, supported hate crimes legislation. If you watched the Republican convention, you almost came away thinking that all the governor's acquaintances were black or Latino. (Indeed, there seemed to be just two kinds of blacks and Latinos in Texas: Either the governor was your friend, or he executed you.) Bush's campaign confirmed the popularity of Social Security and Medicare, of the right to choose--core Democratic programs and policies that he either declined to challenge or professed to embrace.

The right understood that Bush's real politics were every bit as radical as Newt Gingrich's. The economic right--the National Review, the think tanks, Wall Street Journal editorialists--said so repeatedly, but this was hardly the stuff of headlines. The Christian right understood this too, which is precisely why it shut up.

Now, it's payback time--or is it? The National Rifle Association, the business lobbies, and the HMOs have been waiting for this moment for a very long time. Problem is, Bush has neither mandate nor majority. If he takes office, it will not be because he won either the popular vote or an uncooked electoral 270-plus. The nation that emerged from the November 7 election is really quite evenly divided between the two major parties, and it's hard to make the case that voters were opting for anything like the Contract with America. The Republican hold on the House is very weak; its hold on the Senate is only as strong as Strom Thurmond's health. (In the forthcoming session, there's simply no way to ask, "How you doin', Strom?" in a wholly nonpolitical way.)

A President Gore would face a similar paradox. He'd come to power owing more to the party's progressive wing than any president since Franklin Roosevelt after the election of 1936. Deserted by business after his left turn of 1935, Roosevelt turned to John L. Lewis, whose United Mine Workers (UMW) were already funding the CIO's organizing drives in the auto and steel industries to underwrite his campaign, and the UMW responded with nearly $500,000--real money in those days. Gore's debt to John Sweeney's AFL-CIO is, if anything, even greater, for the unions provided the veep with the largest, most effective field operation that presidential politics has seen in decades. In the campaign's closing month, moreover, the need to respond to Nader's philippics brought forth similarly ambitious efforts from the NAACP, the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, People For the American Way--virtually every national progressive organization. Gore's most significant surrogates as November neared were Jesse Jackson, Paul Wellstone, and Gloria Steinem.

Just a few weeks after his re-election, Roosevelt was able to repay Lewis by refusing to send in troops to break the great auto sit-down strikes that led to the recognition of industrial unions in America. But Roosevelt's had been the single-greatest Democratic and progressive landslide in American history. Should Gore prevail, his victory will be the squeakiest of squeakers. His debt is to the left, as W.'s is to the right, but like W.'s, his freedom of movement would be small.

For progressives, then, a Bush or Gore presidency poses a distinct set of challenges and opportunities. As I write, a Bush Fratboy Restoration seems the likelier of the two options, so I'll turn first and at greater length to that.

The Bush Agenda

For all his indirection, candidate W. did articulate the broad outlines of the policies that he'll seek to inflict. Washington will make the rich richer while shelving any increases in the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The military will grow bigger while its mission will be preshrunk, perhaps into little more than the defense of oil interests. Temperatures will rise, and global warming will be disputed. Social responsibility will be attacked as socialist; collective bargaining, as collectivist. The heavy hand of regulation will not be allowed to stand in the way of smog and schmutz.

Throughout the Reagan and Poppy Bush years, the House Democrat who was probably most effective in derailing the presidents' social agendas, and at times even sneaking through things like expansions in health coverage, was California's Henry Waxman. Now Waxman anticipates a campaign from the second Bush administration to diminish social protections and regulations. "Bush will push for vouchers in two areas," Waxman says, "Medicare and education. If he takes up where the Breaux-Thomas Medicare commission left off, he'd transform it into a system where people receive a certain amount of money to go buy private insurance--and if they don't have enough money of their own, they'll be stuck in poor people's HMOs. Bush and congressional Republicans might try to make Medicaid into a block grant program, which could eliminate any guarantees of adequate medical care for the very poor, even in nursing homes. There could be no federal standards for eligibility, no entitlement to services, just a pot of money for the states to use as they saw fit. If your state hit its limit, you could end up on your own."

Republican control of the White House makes it likelier that conservative Democrats will cross over to support some of this legislation, particularly on Medicare--"though I don't want to concede defeat," Waxman says. But the battle is still open for which end of Pennsylvania Avenue sets the national and legislative agenda. "In Texas," says one senior congressional Democratic staffer, "Bush had a pretty good instinct for what the legislature would do, for jumping aboard what was already moving down the track." Certainly, Tom DeLay and Dick Armey would like to dominate their fellow Texan. On the other hand, Karl Rove, Bush's key campaign strategist, didn't bring W. this far only to stand idly by while DeLay erodes his support. Any assault on entitlements has to be exquisitely nuanced.

Senate Democrats, of course, retain the filibuster as their--and our--last line of defense. Anything truly radical that W. proposes will be dead on arrival. A tax cut on the super-duper scale he's proposed, one that showers half its largess on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, would clearly go nowhere. Other initiatives, less high-profile but very dangerous for the poor, might have better prospects. In 2002, Congress must reauthorize the food stamp and child health care programs. As with Medicaid, there's a real chance individual entitlements will be transformed into block grants to states, reducing the aid and services available to the poor.

If you've been listening to Ralph Nader, of course, you might think the Bush presidency is a moment of maximal progressive opportunity. During his campaign, Nader assumed, however cynically, a kind of ultra-Newtonian attitude toward the consequences of a Bush victory: Whatever dismal action Bush unleashes upon the nation, there will be a more-than-equal and opposite reaction from the left. If the Supreme Court continues to narrow the scope of federal civil rights laws, Nader told me this summer, it would provide "the greatest source of a revival in civic action in our generation." The Sierra Club and other groups, he said repeatedly, saw their membership soar in the early years of the Reagan presidency as gagging progressives sent off check after check to the Forces of Good in Washington; and the same would doubtless happen again.

Such thoughts, of course, do not console the Sierra Club one whit. Dan Weiss, the club's national political director, fears that "every anti-environmental idea that Clinton and Gore blocked for the past eight years will come bubbling to the surface now, like some sulfurous gas. You'll see these environmental riders attached to the first emergency appropriations bill that moves through Congress. It will require the government to jump through hoops before it can protect food safety or clean air and water; it will undo the National Forest Protection Plan that Clinton will enact by executive order this December. A lot of these kinds of measures were in the bills that Clinton refused to sign in the budget impasse of 1995. Now, we may still have defensemen on the field, but we have no goalie. Bush won't veto any of this."

For the nonwhite, the nonaffluent, and the nonstraight, reverting to largely defensive battles may prove particularly demoralizing. Perhaps the most impressive achievement of the Clinton administration has been the reduction in the national poverty rate to less than 11.8 percent (when the EITC is factored into the incomes of the poor). Now, the prospect of any big increases in the EITC or the minimum wage is remote, and if Bush's fiscal policies cause or merely augment a recession, it's hard to imagine his administration initiating any countercyclical policies or antipoverty programs. "There's no longer anything in Republican philosophy that would permit them to respond to a recession," says Mark Levinson, chief economist for UNITE, the clothing and textile union.

Within the communities just now coming up for air, a Bush presidency is distinctly unwelcome news. "It's going to be back to survival, to defending our basic humanity," says Torie Osborn, the former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "Bush may make one gay appointment to throw a crumb to the Log Cabin club, but when you look at the impact he'll have on AIDS funding, on violence against gays, on domestic-partnership benefits, on the right of adoption--it's back to the closet."

On the state level, these battles for legal standing and more funding will continue. In California, for instance, legislators will continue to try to pass a domestic-partner benefits bill. But it will be the climate in Washington that will determine just how much political space there is for such a measure, just how willing California Governor Gray Davis may be to sign it. Many states will likely continue to enact environmental protections no matter what the federal government does, as they will patient protections against HMOs: These are popular programs that address middle-class anxieties.

But the fate of the program that has been incrementally expanding health coverage among the working poor--the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP)--is far less certain. Absent the kind of federal pressure that Gore was talking about ratcheting up, only the states with the most liberal governments are likely to increase coverage on their own--and only then if federal funding continues to increase. Such additional funding won't rank very high on the to-do list of the Bush White House, however. "We'll be fighting with all our resources to maintain a lousy status quo in health care at the federal level," says Skip Roberts, legislative director of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), "though we'll be trying to move things forward at the state level."

The Stakes for Labor

Whether or not there's a reactive surge in the membership rolls of the League of Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood, and the American Civil Liberties Union, one kind of organization whose membership will not jump is unions--not unless labor redoubles its organizing to offset antilabor activity by the new administration. Republican administrations invariably appoint pro-management types to oversee (or, more precisely, overlook) worker health-and-safety standards, and to make sure employers have the fullest possible latitude to violate workers' legal right to organize. But Bush has vowed to do a good deal more than that. During his campaign, he routinely called for curtailing the ability of unions to devote their resources to political campaigns. In the 1998 elections, the SEIU's Roberts notes, business outspent labor by a margin of 11 to 1; now, he says, "they want to make that 11 to nothing."

In fact, busting unions will be the chief strategic political goal of the new Bush administration. It's only by virtue of the greatly improved political-action programs of the past half-decade (that is, since John Sweeney became AFL-CIO president) that the Democrats have been able to claw their way back from the debacle of the 1994 election. Unions not only do a far better job of turning out their own vote; in many parts of the nation, they run the get-out-the-vote operations within the African-American community and are the force behind the naturalization, socialization, registration, and mobilization of the new Latino-immigrant communities as well. On the ground, in other words, labor is the Democratic Party. Hence, the coming Republican attack, says UNITE's Levinson, "is not necessarily ideological. It's hard-core politics."

The Republicans have already tried to wage that attack at the ballot box, and failed. In 1998 the conservative strategist and Gingrich ally Grover Norquist funded an ultimately unsuccessful initiative in California, Proposition 226, that would have made it greatly more difficult for unions to spend their funds on election campaigns. One reason the 226 campaign didn't work is that California labor actually persuaded California business to sit out the campaign by threatening to run an initiative campaign of its own. The proposed labor measure would have compelled every corporation with California shareholders to obtain written permission from those shareholders every time it made a political contribution, just as 226 compelled unions to do with their members. As Roberts sees it, the same tactic could work on Capitol Hill. "Eighty-five percent of the work force doesn't belong to unions," says Roberts, "but there are 150 million Americans who pay health insurance premiums that go in part to the HMOs' campaigns for politicians who oppose a patients' bill of rights. And how many hundreds of millions of lower-dividend checks do shareholders get each year because of corporate contributions to campaigns?"

This is a game, in short, that two can play. Moreover, the very narrowness of the Republican majorities ensures that any such change in labor law would have trouble getting through Congress. It's not that all congressional Democrats are resolutely pro-union, but they do all appreciate that without labor, their own ability to win and hold seats every two years would be greatly reduced. Whatever their concern for Democratic principles, they are all concerned for Democratic prospects.

Just as this is a fight that the unions can see coming, there are battles clearly lying just over the horizon for other progressive constituencies as well. Environmentalists know that Bush has pledged to authorize oil drilling in the Arctic Natural Wildlife Refuge. They fully expect he will de-designate some of the lands that Clinton set aside as national monuments and use last summer's forest fires as a pretext to reauthorize logging in forests that Clinton sought to spare under the National Forest Protection Plan. Each of these actions would occasion battles around some very tangible and beautiful tracts of land; the environmental groups will have no trouble rallying a great deal of public opposition to Bush's proposals.

But exciting concern over a dog that doesn't bark in the night--over, say, a Bush administration's failure to do anything about the Kyoto Protocol on global warming--is much harder. Organizing against sins of omission, which in the Bush administration will be legion, is the hardest kind of organizing there is. A proposal to privatize a portion of Social Security will provoke a torrent of opposition, but there aren't likely to be many marchers protesting a failure to expand CHIP.

On several issues, a Bush administration would perpetuate or aggravate Clinton administration policies that upset many Democrats in the first place. Congress will revisit welfare reform in the next two years, and further restrictions and cutbacks in benefits may well result. On trade, a Bush White House will be eager to write a NAFTA for the entire Western Hemisphere, recreating NAFTA's failure to guarantee workers' rights or environmental standards, but on a larger scale. In both these cases, Democrats will find it easier to oppose Bush for policies on which many of them gave Clinton the benefit of the doubt. AFL-CIO leaders always felt constrained in just how far they could go in opposing Clinton's free trade policies--not that they found anything to admire in those policies, but simply because they knew they would have to work with and on behalf of Clinton and other free trade Democrats soon thereafter. Now, if Bush wins, all such constraints are lifted, a factor that may make the battles between labor and the Democratic Leadership Council even more intense. For all their differences, they had a common interest in propping up Bill Clinton. Now the commonality will be gone, and the differences will remain.

Democrats still hold some crucial high ground if Bush takes office. Many congressional Democrats will doubtless feel freer to promote genuinely progressive alternatives to Bush administration policies than they did to those of the Clinton administration. Absolute impotence may corrupt absolutely, but the Democrats emerge from the election with enough power--and enough distance from power--to develop and hone a number of far-reaching but not far-out policies. To whatever extent defeat is liberating, Democratic thinkers have just been set free. The Republicans' situation is precisely the reverse: They now have total responsibility for whatever Washington does, and, given the narrowness of their margin, they have a very limited ability to get anything done. For Democrats this total Republican control is actually an opportunity, if one they'd rather not have--though for the nation, it is more like a crisis.

Indeed, Democratic gains in the elections could put W. in an awkward position. The McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill will now be just three or four votes from a filibuster-proof 60 in the Senate, and John McCain commands a lot more public attention today than he did before his presidential race. W. pledged to veto the bill, but there's a chance he might actually have to do that--not a moment he must relish. Similarly, there's now a clear majority in the Senate for prescription drug coverage.

The Gore Agenda

Should Gore emerge from Florida with the victory that he may actually have won, the left will have some clear opportunities despite the Republicans' hold on Congress. Gore's pledges to expand the CHIP program, raise the minimum wage, and win more money for school construction will be among the topmost legislative priorities. "But major legislation will be difficult," says the Sierra Club's Dan Weiss. "We'd clearly expect Gore to continue the policy that Clinton adopted, of using executive authority to protect the environment." A good deal of that could be done by the Environmental Protection Agency and other administrative bodies--notably, removing mercury emissions from power plants, removing sulfur from diesel fuel, and setting stricter standards for diesel engines. Enviros, says Weiss, expect Gore to honor these commitments and to fight harder than Clinton did for congressional funding for tax credits and research on energy conservation.

On issues such as civil rights and reproductive freedoms, the groups that turned out the Gore vote--and turned Nader backers into Gore voters--have equally clear expectations for Gore. "I would anticipate a lot of gay and lesbian appointments," says Torie Osborn. "They're important. Not just for the access. Under Shalala [Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS)], there have been real gains for gays and lesbians: Things like the gay-teen-suicide study made a policy difference. Appointments matter at HHS and elsewhere for gay and lesbian health care issues, in questions of what gets researched, what studies are funded."

Gore's biggest debt is to labor, of course, and unions have clear programmatic expectations for a Gore administration. "We take very seriously his pre-election pledge that he would not negotiate future trade agreements without building in real protections for labor rights and environmental standards in the core text of the accords," says UNITE's Mark Levinson. "The first big test of that will be the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, FTAA, which is currently in the early phases of negotiation. We saw what happened in 1994 when Clinton betrayed workers over NAFTA. Our members' reaction would only be more intense if FTAA replicates NAFTA's flaws."

If there's one issue on which unions genuinely seem to trust Gore, it's the right to organize. Early on during Clinton's first term, Gore understood that his support for NAFTA could easily make him the runner-up to Richard Gephardt in the contest for labor's support in the 2000 presidential primaries. He went searching for a cause that could neutralize his problem--and found it in the issue of reforming labor law to strengthen workers' rights to join unions.

Labor has been trying to strengthen organizing rights since the 1970s, when firing workers or threatening to relocate their jobs became common management practice during unionization campaigns. The unions' goal has been to amend the National Labor Relations Act to triple the damages employers must pay for illegally firing workers involved in such campaigns and to otherwise increase employer sanctions--and Gore has taken their goal as his own. More than any other figure in American politics, Gore routinely speaks about the need to enhance employees' collective-bargaining rights.

Labor has tried and failed several times over the past 20 years to get labor law reform enacted, and no one in labor believes this is remotely possible with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress. "There's no point in introducing a bill that's dead on arrival just to introduce it," says Andy Stern, president of the SEIU. "But we can begin a serious discussion." In the view of UNITE's Levinson, "Just by using the bully pulpit, Gore would be doing something that would mean a tremendous amount to labor." The unions expect him to do just that.

"Our job," says Stern, "will be to hold Gore accountable on the issues he ran on. Those are our issues--health care, schools, Social Security--and we have to make sure he doesn't stray to another agenda."

What the Democrats' progressive wing ultimately has going for it should Gore win, adds Stern, is not just the fact that it spared him the cruel and unusual punishment of losing to George W. Bush. It's also that Gore enters office in a hole of his own making. "Gore has a credibility issue with the American people," Stern says. "He has to do what he said he'd do. He's no Clinton; he can't dance around and get by on his charm. We can't go back to our people in a couple of years if he doesn't come across. That centrist stuff won't do. He has to deliver." ¤

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