Sam Smith: The Party's Over

Published: Thu 7 Nov 2002 01:31 PM
The Party's Over
Undernews Commentary – By Sam Smith
What happened on November 5, 2002 was the culmination of a hostile takeover of the Democratic Party that began more than a decade ago under the leadership of a group of conservatives, corporadoes, and con men who convinced their political colleagues that the salvation of the party lay in destroying its purpose.
Called "moving to the center," the recipe had certain similarities to a Saturday Night Live sketch in which an actor pretends to be George Bush or Trent Lott, but unlike the sketch, it was neither funny nor convincing. It was conceived by the "Democratic Leadership Council," a group whose underlying message was not leadership but abandon ship and which chose as its agent a conservative governor of Arkansas of salesman-like charm and conviction.
Clinton had been the beneficiary of what one journalist called the Great Mentioner. He had been noted, remarked upon and welcomed in the smokeless salons where national politics are created. How one comes to matter in Washington politics is guided by few precise rules, although in comparison to fifty years ago the views of lobbyists and fundraisers are far more significant than the opinion, say, of the mayor of Chicago or the governor of Pennsylvania. This is a big difference; somewhere behind the old bosses in their smoke-filled rooms were live constituents; behind the political cash lords of today there is mostly just more money and the few who control it.
Thus coming to matter has much less to do with traditional politics, especially local politics, than it once did. Today, other things count: the patronage of those who already matter, a blessing bestowed casually by one right person to another right person over lunch at the Metropolitan Club, a columnist's praise, a well-received speech before a well-placed organization, the assessment of a lobbyist as sure-eyed as a fight manager checking out new fists at the local gym. There are still machines in American politics; they just dress and talk better.
There is another rule. The public plays no part. The public is the audience; the audience does not write or cast the play. In 1988, the 1992 play was already being cast. Conservative Democrats were holding strategy meetings at the home of party fund-raiser Pamela Harriman. The meetings -- eventually nearly a hundred of them -- were aimed at ending years of populist insurrection within the party. They were regularly moderated by Clark Clifford and Robert Strauss, the Mr. Fixits of the Democratic mainstream. Democratic donors paid $1,000 to take part in the sessions and by the time it was all over, Mrs. Harriman had raised about $12 million for her kind of Democrats.
The play was also being cast by the Democratic Leadership Council. Although lacking any official role in the Democratic Party, the DLC claimed it was the voice of mainstream party thought. In fact, it was primarily a lobby for the views of southern and other conservative Democrats, yet so successful was its media manipulation that it even got away with calling its think tank the Progressive Policy Institute.
By the late 1980s there was a wide-spread consensus among both the press and the Democratic leadership that the party's problems could be traced to several factors:
- The loss of control by party bosses due to excessive democratization of nomination and convention procedures.
- Undue pandering to such traditional constituencies as blacks, liberals, and women.
- The need for a new and far more conservative Democratic platform.
By the 1988 convention, this consensus had taken root. US News & World Report reported: "That the Democrats went beyond all bounds to appear bland and 'normal' is incontrovertible. The brief, boring and bulletproof platform gave 'platitudinous' new meaning. 'Notice,' complained New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, offering only one example, 'that the word city does not appear in our platform. We talk about suburban hometown American and I figure that doesn't mean the South Bronx.'"
With the rise of this orthodoxy, the media's language changed. What was once a civil rights cause now became "demands of special interest groups." The conservative Democrats' self-definition as "moderates" or "mainstream" was uncritically adopted. And "liberal" began to be used, even in purportedly objective articles, as a pejorative. It made someone like Clinton looked very good.
What followed is presumed to be well known, but isn't. The same journalists who overwhelmingly supported Clinton's candidacy began writing what amounted to an eight year mythology that created a personal legend even as the party he led collapsed. Missing from the legend were some key facts about the Clinton administration:
- the unraveling of 60 years of successful Democratic programs
- the discrediting in the public mind of such fundamental liberal programs as social security, economic policy, and public education. In such ways Clinton served as a warm-up band for the Republicans.
- a replacement of traditional Democratic programs with a smarmy and disingenuous agitprop, most noticeable in Clinton's handling of his black constituency. The same man who was brought to tears in black churches sent young black males to prison in unprecedented numbers and escalated a drug war that became more deadly to these blacks than Vietnam had been to black fighting men.
Of course, you can argue about such things, but there was something else - also unreported - that you couldn't argue about: the disintegration of the Democratic Party itself. An analysis I did in 1998 found that during Clinton's administration, the Democrats had lost:
- 48 seats in the House
- 8 seats in the Senate
- 11 governorships
- 1,254 state legislative seats
- Control of 9 legislatures
In addition 439 elected Democrats had joined the Republican Party while only three Republican officeholders had gone the other way.
While Democrats had been losing state legislative seats on the state level for 25 years, the loss during the Clinton years was striking. In 1992, the Democrats controlled 17 more state legislatures than the Republicans. After November 2000, the Republicans controlled one more than the Democrats. It was the first time since 1954 that the GOP had controlled more state legislatures than the Democrats (they tied in 1968).
In fact, no Democratic president since the 19th century suffered such an electoral disintegration of his party as did Clinton.
This unreported truth helps to explain why the Democrats didn't do better in 2002. The Republicans merely continued their successful assault on a party that had become hopelessly weakened by an exploitive, ungrounded, self-indulgent elite that had swept through Democratic politics much like the Enron cavaliers treated the energy industry, not to mention their own shareholders and employees. They were, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, careless people: "They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."
There are few signs the party has figured this out. It still clings to Clinton like a abused spouse in denial and accepts other leadership that runs the gamut from the unappealing to the indefensible.
For the party to recover, it must divorce itself from the con men who have done it so much damage. It must find its way back to the gutbucket, pragmatic populism that gave this country Social Security, a minimum wage, veterans' programs, the FHA, civil rights, and the war on poverty. It must jettison its self-defeating snobbism towards Americans who go to church or own a gun. It needs to be as useful to the voter in the cubicle as it once was to the voter on the assembly line. It must find a soul, a passion, and a sense of itself. Most of all, it must get rid of those false prophets and phony friends who have not only done it so much damage but have left the country fully in the hands of the cruel, the selfish, the violent, the dumb, and the anti-democratic.
From the Progressive Review:
Inside the Beltway, Out of the Loop, Ahead of the Curve
Since 1964, Washington's most unofficial source
Edited by Sam Smith
1312 18th St. NW #502, Washington DC 20036
202-835-0770 Fax: 835-0779

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