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Democrats take care of business

July 23, 2004 | Pages 8 and 9

THE PRICE of admission to the posh convention affair was a soft-money donation to the party of $350,000 or more. The power brokers were all there, including the vice presidential candidate. The menu featured lobster, shrimp, steak and chocolate-covered strawberries--washed down by all the booze attendees could guzzle from the open bar. Multinational corporations like AT&T picked up the tab--in the phone giant's case, to say "thanks" for the support it got in Congress for a recent merger that gave it control of 40 percent of the U.S. cable TV market.

Those Republicans know how to throw a bash on Corporate America's dime. Except the party described above took place at the Democratic National Convention four years ago in Los Angeles.

The Democrats claim to be the "party of working people"--and depend on their base of unions and liberal organizations for votes at every election. But a look behind the scenes at the Democrats' convention in Boston at the end of July will tell a different story. LANCE SELFA and ALAN MAASS tell the history of the Democratic Party.

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THE DIFFERENCES between Republicans and Democrats are all you ever hear about when the mainstream media covers U.S. politics. Yet these differences are small compared to the fundamental similarities that unite America's two mainstream parties.

The Democrats and Republicans are capitalist parties, with pro-capitalist ideologies. They carry out policies in the interests of big business--where they get the majority of their funding. It might be more correct to call them the liberal and conservative wings of one main party--the big business party.

Still, at election time, the differences are what seem to matter. The Democrats have the reputation of being the "party of the people"--the party that looks out for the interests of labor and minorities.

The truth is very different. The Democrats' image dates back to the Great Depression of the 1930s and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal reforms, which laid the basis for many of the programs we associate with the federal government today--like Social Security and unemployment insurance.

These were important victories, and it's no wonder that working people look back on the politicians associated with them as friends of labor. But that's not how Roosevelt thought of himself. "[T]hose who have property [fail] to realize that I am the best friend the profit system ever had," Roosevelt said.

In fact, Roosevelt carried out the New Deal reforms as a conscious effort to head off a social revolt sparked by the Great Depression. In return, he got labor's votes--cementing the labor movement's misplaced loyalty to the Democrats that lasts to this day.

The Democrats played much the same role during the social upheavals of the 1960s. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson today have an entirely unearned reputation as anti-racists because they eventually supported some civil rights reforms. But they had to be dragged into it.

Kennedy did his best to ignore the growing civil rights movement in the U.S. South. And it was only after the Black struggle grew to explosive proportions that Johnson--a southern Democrat with a long record of opposing civil rights--pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the two key pieces of 1960s civil rights legislation.

In both the 1930s and 1960s, strikes, demonstrations and sit-ins pressured the U.S. government to grant reforms. But the Democratic Party succeeded in using these events to reinforce the illusion that it stands for "the people."

It would be a mistake, however, to believe that the Democrats always equal reform. On the contrary, the New Deal reforms of the 1930s weren't dismantled when the Republican Eisenhower administration took office in the 1950s.

They did, however, come under sustained assault since the mid-1970s, with both Republicans and Democrats in the White House--after big business consciously operated through both Republicans and Democrats to retake the offensive following the upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Today, Jimmy Carter is viewed as a left-leaning liberal, if not a radical, by most mainstream political observers. But when he was elected president in 1976, Republican analyst Kevin Phillips accurately described him as "the most conservative Democratic president since Grover Cleveland."

Much of what came to be known in the 1980s as "Reaganism" made its debut under Carter. Responding to business complaints that liberal social programs were "unaffordable," Carter was the first to reverse the long trend of increasing government spending on programs that benefited workers and the poor.

Carter's 1978 tax plan cut the capital gains tax for the rich and boosted Social Security taxes on workers. Although Democrats had huge majorities in both houses of Congress and held the White House, the AFL-CIO's proposal for labor law reforms failed to pass.

Carter also launched a massive $1.6 trillion military buildup that Ronald Reagan escalated with a vengeance. When Reagan took office in 1981, Democrats in Congress continued the Carter legacy--for example, providing the margin of victory for both Reagan's tax cut giveaway to the rich, and budget cuts that wiped out years of social welfare gains.

In order to complete the shift to the right begun under Carter, Democratic Party kingpins launched the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in 1985. The DLC's expressed purpose was to promote conservative candidates who would answer to business--and not to presumed "special interests," like labor, women's rights groups and racial minorities.

Spearheading the DLC were pro-Pentagon advisers from the Kennedy-Johnson days, and business supporters like Philip Morris and AT&T. Conservative Democrats from the South and West led the DLC--most famously, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and then-Tennessee Sen. Al Gore.

Meanwhile, party leaders stepped up efforts to build ties to business. In 1981, the Democratic Business Council was formed as a forum for corporate contributors to the party to make their voices heard. The Council attracted patronage from firms like Arco Oil, Chevron, General Dynamics, Boeing and United Technology.

In 1985, Democratic National Committee Chair Paul Kirk said the Council was "the backbone of the Democratic Party's finances and its intellectual resources." Kirk's successor was the late Ron Brown, who turned corporate shakedowns for the Democrats into an art form.

A one-time lobbyist for the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti, the African American Brown built up a network of business support that backed Bill Clinton's 1992 candidacy--and was rewarded with an appointment as Commerce Secretary under Clinton. Brown died in 1996--while leading U.S. CEOs on a junket to scout out investment opportunities in Croatia and Bosnia.

Clinton's election was the crowning achievement of the strategy to remake the Democratic Party as GOP Lite. Clinton launched his presidential campaign as chair of the DLC in 1990 and 1991, and the policies he become known for--from "reinventing government" to "welfare reform"--were straight out of the DLC playbook.

A combination of Republican and Democratic opposition in Congress and his own willingness to bargain away important provisions sunk Clinton's most popular proposal--for health care reform.

Clinton barely lifted a finger as legislation to ban striker replacements was blocked in the Senate. But when the business-backed North American Free Trade Agreement came to a vote, the administration went all out. For the two years that the Democrats controlled Congress during his term in office, Clinton didn't once mention raising the minimum wage.

Clinton and the Democrats politicized issues like crime, welfare and immigration--directly contributing to the right-wing shift in mainstream politics that helped the Republicans take over Congress in 1994. And Clinton carried out cuts in popular programs like Medicare and Medicaid that Reagan and George Bush Sr. could only dream about.

But Clinton stooped to an all-new low in 1996 when he signed a Republican-sponsored version of "welfare reform" into law--even though his own administration estimates admitted that it would throw more than 1 million children into poverty.

Corporate America had no doubts in 1996 that Clinton would put their interests before all others. "The good news is that we're going to have a Republican president in 1996," one disgruntled Republican snarled to a reporter. "The bad news is that it will be Bill Clinton."

It's certainly understandable why people disgusted by George Bush today would want to stop the Republicans at any cost. Supporting the Democrats, not in the hope that they will accomplish anything, but that they will stop something worse from happening, seems sensible.

In reality, this is exactly the wrong way to stop the "worst" from happening--as all the people who voted for Bill Clinton because they hated the Republicans' cruel, victim-blaming proposals to wreck welfare ought to remember now. The truth is that the distance between Democrats and Republicans is not nearly so large as the distance that the two parties together have shifted to the right over the course of the last 30 years.

The lesser and the greater evil

MANY PEOPLE who agree with every argument about the Democratic Party are still determined to hold their nose and vote for John Kerry. Kerry's biggest source of support isn't anything he stands for, but the fact that he isn't George Bush.

Literally millions of people believe that another four years of George Bush would be so catastrophic that a vote for Kerry is really a matter of survival. These people should remember Lyndon Johnson's presidential campaign in 1964.

Johnson was pitted against Barry Goldwater, a right-wing, segregationist, pro-war Republican best known for his lunatic speech at the GOP convention in which he declared: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice."

Johnson, meanwhile, cast himself as the pro-civil rights, "peace" candidate who wouldn't escalate the war in Vietnam. He even ran a campaign ad showing first a young girl holding a flower, and then a nuclear mushroom cloud. The implicit warning was that voting for Goldwater meant voting for certain war.

It wasn't hard to see why Johnson was considered the "lesser evil." Most of the young anti-Vietnam War movement took the position of "half the way with LBJ." Johnson won in a landslide--and once elected, he escalated the Vietnam War beyond anyone's worst nightmares. By the end of the war, 58,000 American soldiers and 3 million Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians had paid for Johnson's election with their lives.

In reviewing the left's support for Johnson as the "lesser evil" in 1964, U.S. socialist Hal Draper recalled the German presidential election of 1932, when the Social Democratic Party encouraged a vote for the right-wing candidate Field Marshal von Hindenburg, in order to defeat Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. "So the Lesser Evil, Hindenburg, won; and Hitler was defeated," Draper wrote. "Whereupon President Hindenburg appointed Hitler to the chancellorship, and the Nazis started taking over.

"The classic case was that the people voted for the Lesser Evil and got both...Hindenburg himself was not a Hitler, and he really was a Lesser Evil. What the classic case teaches is not that the Lesser Evil is the same as the Greater Evil--this is just as nonsensical as the liberals argue it to be--but rather this: that you can't fight the victory of the rightmost forces by sacrificing your own independent strength to support elements just the next step away from them."

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