‘Take It Back’ won’t ease looming
civil war among Democrats
By Roger Bybee
Beware of Washington Beltway insiders masquerading as streetfighting men.
While attempting mightily to deliver a road map to victory, Democratic consultants Paul Begala and James Carville, in Take It Back: Our Party, Our Country, Our Future,” offer a souped-up version of the same tepid, timid, Clintonesque politics that has left the Democratic Party wandering in the wilderness. The book’s key bit of strategic advice is highly revealing:”We’re asking interest groups—some of the most powerful organizations on the left—to back off a bit.”
In reality, Begala and Carville’s term “interest groups” is code for the majority of rank-and-file Democratic voters who stand far to the left of most Democratic congressmen and recent presidential candidates in opposition to US imperial adventures like Iraq, the outsourcing of US jobs, and for a single-payer healthcare plan. By slyly suggesting that the party’s Left is simply composed of impatient unions, feminist, civil rights, anti-war, and environmental groups who insist on weighing the party down with unpopular baggage, Begala & Carville seek to avoid dealing with the gulf between corporate-funded Democratic officeholders and their constituents eager for a party that fights for their interests.
Seeking to enforce artificial unity in the name of electing Democrats—whether it is a principled progressive like Russ Feingold or a conservative, contributor-appeasing Joe Lieberman—to defeat the Republicans’ collection of money-grubbing moralizers and neo-con war-mongers, Begala and Carville continually slide over difficult questions in their book. As Carville recently told Newsweek, “The American people are going to be ready for an era of realism. They’ve seen the consequences of having too many ‘big ideas.’”
Clearly, readers of Take It Back will not be overwhelmed with “too many big ideas.” Yes, Take It Back contains much useful material on the stunning greed, arrogance, and incompetence of the Bush administration. But it largely comes up empty on the basic choice facing the party: will it continue to play to big campaign contributors on issues like job outsourcing and privatization of public services, or will it seek to re-bond itself with an increasingly restive and alienated base that seeks a party of conviction and commitment?
Because of Carville’s involvement in tenaciously promoting the job-exporting North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and more recently as a consultant in behalf of elite forces seeking to overturn the democratic election of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and promoting an unpopular pro-privatization candidate in Bolivia (recorded in the documentary “Our Brand is Crisis” by Rachel Boynton) , the book loses a substantial amount of credibility. Carville’s tough-talking populism appears to be a smokescreen for a deeply-rooted affinity for the powerful that is especially apparent on issues of global injustice.
On the positive side of the ledger, Carville and Begala, veteran Democratic advisors who remained on the outside of the hapless Kerry campaign machine, must be credited with offering some sage tactical advice, if not a grand strategy. Moreover, they forcefully denounce the Iraq War, which is something that cannot be said of leading Democrats like Hillary Clinton, the increasingly disappointing Barack Obama, Joe Lieberman or Rahm Emmanuel.
But one of “Take It Back”’s biggest deficits is its unwillingness to confront the fact that the Democrats are really two very different parties seemingly headed on a collision course. The conflict between the corporate-based Dems and the grass-roots forces may not sharpen fully by this year’s mid-term elections, but seems certain to flare up into a civil war by the 2008 presidential primaries.
On the one hand, there is the party of the Clintons, Wall Street bankers like Robert Rubin and Roger Altman, the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council, and Rubin’s new Alexander Hamilton Project, appropriately named after the thoroughly anti-democratic first treasury secretary They remain steadfast in pushing for more corporate-style globalization (translation: outsourcing of family-supporting US jobs with nothing remotely comparable to replace them) regardless of the impact on the Democrats’ most loyal, bedrock constituencies—working people, African-Americans and Latinos.
This wing of the party remains content to passively watch the Bush Administration in the hope that it will choke itself on its own greed, with the Dems doing no more than decrying a “culture of corruption” (despite plenty of Democrats like Rep. William Jefferson plaguing beleaguered New Orleans). They imagine themselves being bold when they invoke the less-than-inspiring call for “competence” (recall how effective that was for Michael Dukakis in 1988). They maintain disciplined and cowardly silence about the morality of the Iraq war, torture, “special rendition,” and massive civilian deaths.
But at the grass-roots and fast-growing“net-roots” (activists connected by the Internet) level of Democratic voters, there is enormous outrage at the Iraq War, “preventive war,” outsourcing and the crushing of middle-class dreams, and America’s lack of a sensible health systemthat cuts out the insurance companies so central to the Clintons’ defeated plan. This wing of the party has a few heroes in Congress: Sens. Russ Feingold, Dick Durbin, and Barbara Boxer, Reps. John Conyers, Cynthia McKinney, Tammy Baldwin, Barbara Lee, and Gwen Moore, among others. But with the exception of Feingold, the party leadership has joined with the prestige media in marginalizing these critical voices in favor of choosing Democratic spokespeople like Joe Biden, Joe Lieberman, and Hillary Clinton.
Fueling the grass-roots’ huge frustration is the Washington Democrats’ unwillingness or incapacity to articulate these grievances with any force or sincerity. The canyon between the Washington wimps and the grass-roots warriors seems to grow day by day. Only the mounting outrages of George II’s rule sustains a tenuous alliance between the two wings of the Democrats, in the hope that the 2006 mid-term elections will create a Democratic majority in at least one house.
At moments, Carville & Begala take the DC Democrats to task for their utter unwillingness to stand up and fight, on any issue and at any time. They note, for example, that most key Democratic leaders remained silent when the Republican tax plan rendered some nine million children’s families ineligible for child tax credits while heaping $13 billion in new breaks on corporations. “Too many Democrats—indeed, most Democrats—went along with screwing poor kids and sucking up to corporations. What the hell use is it to have a political part if you’re not going fight something like that? What the hell were the Democrats waiting for, some thing more important? What the hell does this party stand for, anyway?”
For one thing, the party doesn’t stand for universal health care, an issue of staggering importance to American families and with immense political stakes. ”Health care is more than a moral issue; it’s an economic issue, it’s a jobs issue, and it’s a competitiveness issue,” they correctly argue. Healthcare for US autoworkers amounts to about $4 per hour per worker, which increasingly drives production out of the US. Despite paying roughly twice what France does on a per-capita basis, the US ranks just 37th in overall health system efficacy.
Yet the party has continually failed to unify on the obvious rational solution—a single-payer system that eliminates the enormous cost, frustration, and inefficiency wrought by placing insurance corporations at the heart of the healthcare system. While offering some solid political advice—simplicity in offering an alternative and making health a “values issue”—Carville & Begala themselves shy away from the only clear-cut solution of a single-payer Canadian-style system and instead tepidly call for an expansion of Medicaid to cover all children and the working poor, along with allowing businesses to gain tax credits for buying into the federal workers’ group health plan.
Along with failure at the level of strategy and program, Democrats have been out-fought at the most fundamental level, Begala & Carville argue persuasively. “Democrats have failed at the basics: defining their message, attacking their opponents, defending their leaders, inspiring their voters.” The Kerry team’s ineptness provides a distressingly rich trove of examples: the absence of any memorable message from the campaign; the strict commandment against attacking the Bush administration during the Democratic convention; the painfully slow response to the Swift Boaters’ slurs; the shallow retort to the Republicans’ outrageous claim in Arkansas and West Virginia that Kerry intended to outlaw the Bible, and the decision to focus on a litany of issues rather than a consistent “narrative” about Bush’s America and an alternative vision. As Carville once put it, the Kerry campaign operated “a perpetual committee listening to a perpetual focus group.”
Despite Bush’s seemingly insurmountable tide of issues going against him in 2004—a wave of job outsourcing, soaring health costs and growing numbers of under-insured, and mounting revelations about the Bush team’s determined and deceptive effort to draw the US into an increasingly ill-fated war in Iraq—Kerry and his band of insular campaign advisors managed to still lose the election. Carville and Begala assert convincingly that the lack of an over-arching message for Kerry prevented him from taking advantage on these and other compelling issues. “Having a message allows voters to make sense of the specific issues,” they write. “Not having a message causes issues to lose their resonance.”
Thus, Kerry lost a Democratic state like West Virginia by 13 points, with contrived social issues like gay marriage and gun control filling the vacuum created by the absence of a distinct, compelling message from Kerry and the Democrats.
Take It Back provides thus provides some valuable insights. But it falls far short of its promise to help ordinary Democrats “take back their party.” Apart from urging a slightly surlier tone toward Bush from Democratic congressmen, Begala and Carville seem basically content to leave the party in the hands of its current owners.
Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer and activis