READING BETWEEN THE LINES
By Lance Selfa | January 30, 2004 | Page 9
BY THE time you read this, Howard Dean may have lost badly in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, and you will be reading his political obituaries in the mainstream press. Or he may have turned in a respectable showing that allowed the media to write about his "comeback."
Whatever this week's conventional wisdom, last week's Iowa caucuses provided some lessons about the role of the Democratic Party in the U.S. political system. One of the standard liberal raps against Ralph Nader's third-party presidential campaign in 2000 was that if he was really serious about moving American politics in a progressive direction, he would have run in the Democratic primary.
Dean's collapse in Iowa should raise questions about just how likely that prospect would be--in 2000 or any other time. All reports agree that Dean has drawn a committed group of followers, many of them new to politics.
This gave the Dean campaign a "movement" feel--despite the fact that its candidate isn't even a liberal, and its chairman is a former head of the Democratic National Committee. Yet Dean's loss in Iowa should undermine any notion that the Democratic Party functions democratically--or that it can be "taken over" by a committed group of progressives.
Dean had the largest and most committed group of followers in Iowa. Yet his campaign couldn't break through the chorus of criticism of Dean served up to the media by his opponents and other high-ranking Democrats. Nor could they crack the Democratic Party machine in the state that largely backed the more "electable" Kerry.
It's not that Dean is some radical. But to Democratic Party leaders, his candidacy presents a certain level of unpredictability. What's more, Dean built his entire campaign on appealing to Democrats disaffected with their party's continuous rolling over for Bush.
To a party establishment that values predictability and doesn't see much wrong with the way that it has conducted itself in the last three years, a Kerry or an Edwards is much more acceptable than Dean. Of course, party leaders don't come out and say this. They talk about "electability" instead.
And when they talk about selecting an "electable" candidate, they mean finding someone who can compete with Bush on the grounds of "values" or "national security." In other words, they mean trying to find someone as close to Bush as they can get away with.
So all the talk of "electability" really means that the hobbyhorses of conservatism will drive the Democratic primaries, no matter what other empty promises about health care or Social Security the candidates make. It could be no other way, because the legalized bribery that launders corporate and wealthy individuals' money into the political parties makes sure that no one unacceptable to the ruling class will ever become a nominee.
With President Bush racking up more contributions than the entire Democratic field combined, it's clear that he's Corporate America's number one pick. But if Bush falters, corporations and the rich have covered their bets with the Democrats, which is why the "populists" Kerry and Edwards pull in their largest amount of contributions from law firms, the securities industry and real estate firms, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Iowa provided a different lesson to people who saw Rep. Dennis Kucinich as a left-liberal alternative to the more conservative Dean. Kucinich has campaigned on positions--from ending the occupation of Iraq to single-payer healthcare--that are considered fringe in the Democratic Party.
Yet Kucinich tossed out the window whatever credibility he had as a principled advocate of these positions with his last-minute Iowa deal to throw his support to the more conservative and pro-war Sen. John Edwards, in caucus meetings where Kucinich supporters didn't reach the minimum level of support that they needed.
In a way, this wasn't surprising. Kucinich has made no secret that his ultimate allegiance lies with the Democratic Party--a bosses' party--not with the antiwar or labor movements.
Those who supported him on the grounds that he was the only principled progressive in the race found that he would trade their support in the lowest of logrolling games. The experiences of the Dean and Kucinich campaigns in Iowa are the latest illustrations of Malcolm X's warning to activists in the 1960s: If you put the Democrats first, they will only put you last.