Spank the Donkey

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

With the country's spurious right turn as their warrant, the business Democrats spent most of the 1980s and all of the 1990s crafting themselves into the party of tough love--young, freshly galvanized "centrists" who would cut away the cumbersome old entanglements and put fiscal responsibility at the top of the Democratic agenda. Think JFK and his New Frontiersmen, except that where Kennedy's boys were hot to fight the Cold War abroad, Clinton's people were out to facilitate one at home.

What they practiced wasn't centrism at all by any recognizable standard. It always leaned carefully but emphatically to the right. Bill Clinton set the tone for his first administration by provoking a public fight with a relatively obscure female rapper in order to distance himself and the party from the great mass of black America, a gesture he spent the next eight years underscoring with all the right kinds of coded talk about poverty, pathology, and responsibility. (This was a winning proposition on more than one level: A lot of upwardly mobile blacks loved him for it.)

The Clinton years saw unprecedented rollbacks in numerous areas, all undertaken in the name of realism and staying one step ahead of the dastardly Republicans. Environmental protections? Clinton/Gore tipped the scales more decisively than ever toward the preferences of business. In the words of Jeffrey St. Clair, the co-editor of Counterpunch and a veteran environmental writer and activist, "Reviewing the environment during Clinton time is like watching a preview of the Bush administration. Indeed, many of Bush's worst ideas for the planet germinated with Clinton. It started early and didn't let up. At the behest of his friends in the chemical industry, Clinton moved to excise the Delaney Clause, a valuable law which had been around since the days of Rachel Carson that set zero tolerance for the presence of known carcinogens in processed foods. With Delaney gone, the chemical industry had smooth sailing for the approval of a host of new pesticides. This also set a bad precedent for other issues: Regulative prohibitions were going to be shoved aside in favor of 'risk assessments' and cost-benefit analysis. This approach was soon applied to air pollution, water pollution and toxic waste. But it saw its most malign and far-reaching application with the Endangered Species Act, which was essentially eviscerated under the guidance of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

"Midway through Clinton's first term, he signed what has been called the 'worst environmental law of the 20th century'--the Salvage Logging Rider, which allowed timber to be clear-cut on national forests across the country without compliance with any environmental laws and shielded from any kind of citizen challenge or lawsuits. In a 1996 op-ed the great environmental radical David Brower wrote that 'Clinton and Gore have done more harm to the environment in four years than Reagan and Bush did in 12.' And one very mainstream voice--Jay Hair, the former head of the National Wildlife Federation who died recently--compared the experience of working with Clinton/Gore to date rape."

Business regulation? In everything from food inspections to workplace safety, Clinton broadened the system of voluntary compliance, a polite way of saying federal inspectors packed up and went home and businesses were free to do as they pleased as long as they didn't draw themselves into public scandal. Civil liberties? After the Oklahoma City bombing, he outflanked Republicans to the right with a domestic anti-terrorism bill that could have been crafted by the Ashcroft Justice Department.

Then there is Clinton's crowning achievement, welfare reform. It was his most famous "compromise" with the evil Republicans, and you miss his real genius if you suppose it was any compromise at all. Go back and recall the circumstances that attended Clinton's 1996 signing of the welfare bill. He was running for re-election that fall against a stiff, cranky septuagenarian whose next job would be hawking Viagra--a race Clinton was already assured of winning handily. The Gingrich class of Republicans and their Contract With America were on the run, excoriated in poll after poll. Prospects for Democratic gains in Congress were good. It's a bald lie to say that Clinton's hand was forced by political exigency; he had plenty of room to maneuver.

And what did he do? In short order he signed the welfare bill, and he denied a request to release a portion of his campaign war chest for use in close congressional races. The latter suggests that when push came to shove, Clinton was not really interested in chasing a Democratic majority; it better suited his purposes to be able to claim he was getting pushed and shoved by Republicans. Publicly the Democrats would have you believe that Clinton's legacy was a matter of doing his best under adverse circumstances. It would be closer to the mark to say he built exactly the record he desired, give or take his planned second-term overhaul of the Social Security trust fund. (Thank you, Monica Lewinsky--you saved Social Security!) Next to Clinton, the Nixon administration was one long orgy of fuzzy-headed liberalism.


Okay, but what about Congress?

Say what you will of presidential politics; aren't the people we choose to represent us in House and Senate races the product of more homespun, democratic deliberations? No. Here again the national party has the final say. The mechanism is simple enough. In races for national office these days you are nothing without soft money, and the flow of these dollars to would-be Democratic contenders is controlled by the party's national campaign organizations, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). The committees are happy to welcome all candidates at first, since they are all prospective fundraisers for the party, but that doesn't mean the party will return the favor to just anybody.

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