Spank the Donkey

Why We Should All Give Up on the Democrats: A Polemical Essay

And how does the rank-and-file react? Why don't the Democrats... If only the Democrats... If the Democrats were smart... Hold on right there. Let's dispense with the ridiculous, shopworn notion that the Democrats don't get it, that they are too dim or too timid to do the things that are evident to the rest of us: tack left, talk populist, stand up to Bush, push hot-button issues like corporate malfeasance, health care, and campaign finance reform.

They see these things as clearly as the rest of us, and they choose not to do any of them. Why? Money is the simple, vulgar answer, and the correct one. The matter of corporate crime, to take one example, is not seen by the national Democratic party as an opportunity to capitalize on Republican weakness and seize an upper hand; it is seen as a problem shared in common with Republicans--the problem of helping one's cash clients in a tough time.

But illusions die hard, so the refrain persists: Don't the Democrats see that they could win by going a different way? Of course they do. But this isn't sports, it's politics, and no one who supposes that the object of big-time politics is to win every time out will ever understand what a national political party is or how it operates. The stability of such an operation--the continued security and power of its chief officers--depends on two things: a steady stream of money from stable sources, and the organizational will and means to exclude from the party any persons or ideas that threaten the servicing of that cash clientele. Parties like to win but it's not the main thing.

And yes, it's also important to maintain a critical mass of public support and party patronage; this is exactly the Democrats' current crisis. But the people are a secondary matter in the minds of party managers, and one they have sought to address almost entirely with placating rhetoric. This was the Clinton White House's express strategy from the day chief adviser Dick Morris first whispered the magic word in Bill's ear. That word, "triangulation," evoked a world of cynicism and duplicity; Morris's basic idea was to hew close to Republicans on policy (to please the party's funders and to avoid getting outflanked on the right with voters) while standing nominally to their left. The meager differences between the Clintonites and the Republicans were carefully amplified in Clinton's public rhetoric. In practice this meant assiduous attention to public relations (we feel your pain--really we do) and precious little else. The Morris/Clinton stratagem was predicated on the notion that Democratic voters had nowhere else to go and only required the barest of scraps to keep them in the fold.

So it's deliciously absurd to read all the Democratic pundits and bloggers indignantly demanding that Terry McAuliffe fall on his sword for the good of the party. Not bloody likely: As far as he is concerned, whatever preserves his regime's power is the good of the party. And there is always the matter of cash receipts. McAuliffe, a financier by trade and the longtime principal fundraiser for Bill Clinton, has improved the party's cash position considerably. If he does wind up falling on his sword (not for losing the election to Republicans, but for losing the fundraising battle), his position will be filled with another DLC clone who will vow to learn from McAuliffe's mistakes and then emulate him in every important respect.

The DLC, if you don't make a habit of following such things, is the Democratic Leadership Council, a creature hatched in the mid-1980s and promoted mainly by conservative Southern and Western Democrats--people like Bruce Babbitt, Charles Robb, Al Gore, Sam Nunn, and the winsome young governor from Arkansas. To anyone paying attention, it was immediately clear what they were up to. In 1986 Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers published a little-noted book called Right Turn: The Decline of the Democrats and the Future of American Politics that traced the rise of the business Democrats who would eventually constitute the heart of party leadership. It began with the strategic ministrations of men like Nathan Landow, a Maryland real estate developer who emerged as a force in the wake of the 1984 Mondale campaign.

The coterie of big Democratic fundraisers eventually coalesced behind the banner of the DLC, whose control of the party was ratified by the successes of Bill Clinton. DLC chieftains defined the game of politics entirely in terms of money and set out to raise as much as possible, amending the party platform as necessary and taking care to distance themselves from all their old constituencies--most conspicuously, black people, but more broadly the whole American working class. Their few gestures toward the white working class lay mainly in the realm of race-baiting (it was Al Gore who first dug up Willie Horton to use against Michael Dukakis, in the 1988 New York primary) and no-new-tax pledges.

The rise of the pro-business Democrats was less a coup than a summation of moves the party had been making since the unruly events of 1968 and 1972, a period marked by a "crisis of democracy" in the infamous phrase of Samuel P. Huntington, meaning there was too damn much of the stuff and it was proving unwieldy. After those tumultuous years the party promoted a number of changes designed to ensure that no upstart could sway the party from the will of its national machine. Thus we got super-delegates at the national convention, a battalion of party regulars who could be counted on to back the right horse in the event of a close race, and electoral tricks like Super Tuesday, a carefully juggled slate of early primaries that skewed heavily toward conservative southern states--both of them steps designed to prevent any left-liberal insurgent from building a prohibitive lead in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. This is why the people who protested that Jesse Jackson had no legitimate shot in 1988 were ultimately right.

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