What about the “good” Democrats?

November 28, 2012

Michael Billeaux and Alan Maass examine the record of Wisconsin's new senator.

HIGH ON the list of results that liberals celebrated on Election Night was the victory of Democrat Tammy Baldwin in the U.S. Senate race in Wisconsin. Baldwin defeated Tommy Thompson, the former Republican governor and Cabinet official in the Bush Jr. administration.

Seeing the conservative Thompson go down to defeat would have brought a smile to the face of anyone who remembers his long tenure as governor, when he became nationally known as a champion of wrecking government welfare programs. Plus, his loss--and Barack Obama's win in the state--came only a few months after right-wing serpent Scott Walker handily won a recall election to remain governor.

But the fact that Thompson was beaten by Baldwin, one of the most liberal Democrats in national office today, was noteworthy. Contrary to the claims of mainstream Democratic leaders that the only way to defeat the Republican right is to run "centrist" candidates who will appeal to "swing voters," Baldwin won as part of a broader national trend in Election 2012: a general rejection of the retrograde Republican agenda, even in races where the GOP had an advantage.

Tammy Baldwin
Tammy Baldwin

Still, any left-wing activist who thinks Baldwin represents what they hope the Democratic Party will become should take a closer look at her full record, with all its compromises and contradictions.

Baldwin made history by becoming the first open lesbian to be elected to the U.S. Senate. She will also be one of 20 women senators in the next Congress, the most ever to sit in the Senate by a long ways.

She has been a representative in Congress since 1999 and has gained a reputation among liberals in Wisconsin and nationally as "one of the good ones"--a Democrat who has stayed true to what progressives believe are the real principles of the party.

This reputation is understandable in many respects. For one thing, Baldwin is one of the rare Democrats who explicitly supported a single-payer health care system. Her opponent Thompson actually ran attack ads with video footage of Baldwin telling a cheering crowd, "I am in favor of a government takeover of health care!"

For this alone, Baldwin would stand out from the crowd of much tamer Democrats. But her voting record as a House representative is near-perfect according to the standards of liberals. At every opportunity, she voted in favor of women's reproductive rights and against restrictions on abortion. She has consistently voted against authorizing new oil drilling and in favor of expanding renewable energy production. The list could go on.

Yet excitement about Baldwin among progressives and labor groups also illustrates some of the problems with Democrats on the liberal wing of the party.

For one thing, there are holes in her impeccable liberal credentials--and on issues that will be critical in the coming six years, like the U.S. conflict with China and Washington's war threats against Iran. Because one of their champions takes a conservative position on such issues, progressives can be drawn behind policies and political stands that contradict their ideals.

Second, liberals like Baldwin don't control the Democratic Party. When their beliefs clash with the policies pursued by a Democratic White House or the party's congressional leadership, they may (or may not) raise their voices in criticism, but they rarely if ever break with the Democrats.

Thus, liberal figures like Baldwin provide "window dressing" that lends legitimacy among the Democrats' more progressive base supporters for a party that, first and foremost, always serves the interests of the U.S. business and political establishment.

THE MOST prominent flaw in Baldwin's liberal image is her role among national Democrats in leading the anti-China charge. During her victory speech on Election Night, it took Baldwin just minutes to turn to China-bashing.

Baldwin was a primary author and sponsor, with Democrats and Republicans alike, of the China Hurts Economic Advancement Through Subsidies (CHEATS) Act. The bill was incorporated into legislation that President Obama signed into law last March. According to Baldwin's website:

American manufacturers deserve our full support in combating China's relentless pattern of international trade law violations. The simple fact is that China cheats. Chinese manufacturers aren't outcompeting Wisconsin manufacturers. Chinese manufacturers receive direct subsidies from their government to help them undercut American businesses...This cheating must be stopped.

The hypocrisy of these anti-China appeals is obvious. For example, Baldwin attacks the Chinese government for providing "direct subsidies" to Chinese companies and industries. But the U.S. government does exactly the same thing, supporting American corporations through quotas, tariffs and a variety of different forms of subsidies and support. The people of Haiti, for example, can attest to the ways that U.S. rice subsidies have ravaged their economy.

And if Chinese industry has advanced in the world economy, Corporate America had something to do with that. The truth is that U.S. business has made a lot more money off China's manufacturing success.

As David Whitehouse wrote for SocialistWorker.org, "[T]he intended consequence of the free-market, neoliberal revolution" has been that "[c}apital was free to nestle anywhere it could find the cheapest labor and resources. It is not surprising that China turned out to be a perfect place for Western capital to produce sneakers, toys, microwave ovens and electronics."

As for the claim that U.S. jobs are being lost to China, the real blame lies with U.S. corporations that carried out a decades-long drive to lower the wages and conditions of workers. Foreign competition has served as the excuse, but U.S. corporations have been the beneficiaries of the attack on labor. And now that the ruling-class offensive has moved most sharply against the public sector, it's clear that the American elite is driving the loss of jobs, not the Chinese government.

Blaming unfair international competition for aspects of the economic crisis isn't a new phenomenon. This same pattern took hold in the 1970s and '80s with the union-led push toward protectionism against imports from Japan. The net effect was that organized labor used its political influence to gain assistance for the very corporations that were laying off its members in huge numbers.

Another ugly consequence of the "Buy American" drive was intensified racism and xenophobia, as U.S. workers were pitted against Japanese workers. Measures like Baldwin's CHEATS Act are bound to ratchet up hatred toward China.

This is the wrong direction for anyone who wants to stop the loss of U.S. jobs and defend working-class living standards. Economic nationalism imagines that U.S. workers have more interests in common with the employers who impose concessions and layoffs on them than they do with the workers of other countries.

Instead of taking sides in a battle between America's 1 Percent and China's 1 Percent, we need solidarity across borders a common struggle of the global 99 Percent.

THE CHEATS Act isn't the only issue where Baldwin has been far from liberal.

For example, she has voted with the Democratic Party mainstream in favor of sanctions on Iran, once even co-sponsoring legislation to this effect. These sanctions have had real effects on ordinary Iranians while providing supporters of military intervention to build support for U.S. action. Yet Baldwin, in a debate with Thompson during the campaign, said she agreed with the position of the Obama administration that "all options are on the table."

Baldwin has also been a stalwart supporter of Israel. As the liberal Zionist J Street organization wrote in support of Baldwin this year:

In 2012, Baldwin voted for the bipartisan United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act of 2012 that strengthens the United States' military and intelligence partnership with Israel....

After the election of Hamas in Gaza, Baldwin defended Israel and condemned Palestinian terrorism, voting in favor of the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006 to urge that "a stronger message must be sent by the United States to Hamas that we will not support a government that continues to embrace terrorism."...

During her 13 years in the House of Representatives, Congress has appropriated $34.9 billion in aid to Israel, which Baldwin has consistently supported...

In March 2011, Congresswoman Baldwin signed a bipartisan letter reaffirming her commitment to aiding Israel by supporting the Obama Administration's efforts to maintain high levels of foreign funding to Israel and the Palestinian Authority despite budget cuts affecting overall foreign aid appropriations.

What about domestic issues? As noted above, Baldwin stood out from other Democrats for having supported a single-payer health care system.

But when it came time to take a stand on the Obama administration's health care law--which does not provide health care for all and which trades limited regulations of the worst insurance company abuses for a mandate that will require millions of people to buy the defective products of private insurers--Baldwin abandoned genuine reform and supported her party.

As she told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "We have a bill that was passed. I worked on it. I voted for it. That's what our task is going forward. It doesn't matter the debates of a decade ago or even more recently...I voted for it, and now we need to put it to work and make it work for Wisconsin."

THIS LAST example leads to a broader point about the "good" Democrats--those who many progressives believe represent the true liberal roots of the party.

Actually, the liberal wing of the Democrats never wields power in the party as a whole. Its members may take quite progressive and even radical stands, but they always remain a minority, vocal or not, in setting government policy and passing laws.

This reality WAS especially clear in the career of former Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, probably the most liberal member of the Senate from his election in 1990 until his death in a plane crash in 2002.

Wellstone's background in grassroots activism was more radical in some ways than Baldwin's. He was a professor at Carleton College who became the most prominent anti-Vietnam War activist on campus. He was known as a supporter of labor and the poor, walking the picket lines during the bitter strike of Austin, Minn., meatpackers against Hormel in the mid-1980s.

Wellstone won the nomination to run for Senate in 1990 largely because Democratic Party leaders thought the incumbent Republican, Rudy Boschwitz, was unbeatable. But Wellstone's populist campaign eked out a victory. As Lance Selfa later wrote for Socialist Worker:

Wellstone's first vote as a senator was against George Bush Sr.'s Gulf War on Iraq. But he soon began to succumb to the go-along-to-get-along atmosphere in Washington. For example, Wellstone won his Senate seat as an outspoken supporter of a single-payer system for universal health care. But in 1994, he backed the Clinton administration's lousy pro-corporate health care reform plan that collapsed before even reaching a vote in Congress.

As a Democrat, however liberal, Wellstone was part of a party that puts Corporate America first. Thus, he inevitably faced a Catch-22 situation. When he tried to remain true to his principles, he was dismissed as "unrealistic" and "irrelevant" by Republicans and Democrats alike. When he set out to accomplish something "realistic," he had to compromise his principles...

Wellstone's career shows what happens to even the best-intentioned people who join the Democrats, hoping to use this party of big business to change the system from within. They find that the system is stacked against them--and that it changes them, not the other way around.

Baldwin will face the same Catch-22--and it represents very bit as much of a problem about the "good" Democrats as their deviations from principled liberal positions.

The Democrats tolerate figures like Baldwin and Wellstone--sometimes grudgingly--as long as their more progressive stances remain on the margins and they fall in line behind the party when it matters. In fact, the liberal wing of the party provides an important service in giving it credibility with its far more liberal core constituencies, like unions and civil rights organizations.

At election time, this role is especially critical. The "good" Democrats build enthusiasm for the party in a way its moderate establishment never can--and then they deliver it to whichever candidates, liberal or conservative, the party chooses to run, from president on down. As Sharon Smith wrote in a commentary about Dennis Kucinich, the former House member and two-time antiwar candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination:

[L]ike a scorned relative who always shows up to family functions, Kucinich refuses to disengage from the Democratic Party establishment that...tolerates his presence only with gritted teeth. But Kucinich's loyalty to the party that holds him in such contempt will perform a useful service in delivering left-wing support for the party's chosen, corporate-backed nominee in 2008...

Kucinich must therefore be faulted for compromising his principles in one crucial respect. He remains beholden to the Democrats--a ruling-class, imperialist party that coexists in a power-sharing arrangement with the Republicans--offering voters no genuine alternative to the status quo.

Our movements can't rely on liberal Democrats like Baldwin, even if she somehow could play a leading role in setting government policy. We have to remain politically independent of the two capitalists parties--and rely on the power of protest and resistance.

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