Democratic Betrayal Breaking promises again


t has become standard practice for parties of the left, or that claim
to represent mass constituencies, to make populist and peace-stressing
promises and gestures that are betrayed instantly on the assumption of
power. Sometimes, as with Tony Blair in 1997, a close reading of the pre-election
political statements would make one aware that neither service to ordinary
citizens nor peace are likely to be high on the leader’s agenda. Also,
a study of the funding and economic and political connections of the incoming
U.S. leadership is often a giveaway as to likely political direction. But
occasionally the leaders seem genuinely surprised that meeting their constituency’s
demands will not be practicable and that the political costs will be more
than they care to accept. 

Bill Clinton affords a classic case of standard-form betrayal. He was going
to “put people first,” but very quickly abandoned even his initial modest
expansionist program, partly on competing triangulation principles, partly
on his discovery that the bond market disapproved, which led to his rapid
adjustment to that disapproval. He acknowledged that, “Roosevelt was trying
to help people. Here we help the bond market and we hurt the people who
voted us in.” Clinton compromised his health care reform into unworkability,
failed to press for it very hard, and famously put deficit reduction ahead
of people or programs (see Robert Pollin,

Contours of Descent

, “Clintonomics:
The Hollow Boom”). He spent much of his political capital getting passage
of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which his voting constituency
was strongly against, but which was favored by the business community and
major election funders. His Crime, Terrorism and Personal Responsibility
bills were strongly anti-people; there was a gigantic leap in black imprisonment
in the Clinton years. He kept the military budget very high despite the
death of the Soviet Union, precluding any peace dividend, sponsored two
wars in the Balkans, and was responsible for the “sanctions of mass destruction”
against Iraq, which cost possibly a million civilian lives. His triangulation
was an important reason for the Republican Congressional triumph in 1994
and his overall policy thrust paved the way to a more thoroughgoing Republican
triumph in 2000. 

The Clinton experience suggests some painful questions about the probable
outcome of the recent Democratic election triumph. Some liberal-left commentators
are claiming that the swing to the right is over and the left is now on
the march (e.g., Paul Waldman, “A Big Step in Nation’s March to Left,”



, November 12, 2006). But Clinton turned out to be only a
brief slowup in the longer-term move to the right and in some ways he accelerated
the move, as in his support of the Personal Responsibility Act of 1996
that ended federal responsibility for poor people. It has been argued that
it would have been hard for conservatives to get this responsibility ended
so quickly; it required “bipartisan” support provided by the leadership
of a Democratic president. Most important, by pushing for NAFTA and fiscal
austerity and failing to carry out any program that served the mass constituency
of the Democratic Party, Clinton set the stage for a return of the right

The lesson was that unless the Democratic Party can actually meet the demands
and needs of its mass constituency, its triumph can be short-lived. There
are ample grounds for thinking that this problem is more acute now than
14 years ago; and that the existing Democratic Party is likely to fall
short of meeting constituency demands. The Democratic Party has benefited
from a widespread disaffection and distrust of the Bush administration—its
wars, corruption, mismanagement, and lies—with votes falling into Democratic
hands not because of what the Democrats have done or even promised, but
because they are not Bush and company. Bill Fletcher and others have called
this the “I am fed up” vote. Beyond this, if we examine what the Democratic
Party stands for, who leads it, who it represents, and what it is likely
to do, it is hard to be optimistic. 

Frank Rich, John Nichols, and others contest this, arguing that the newly-elected
Democrats are almost across the board to the left of the displaced Republicans.
Rich acknowledges that “disengaging America from that war is what the country
voted for overwhelmingly on November 7 and that’s what the Democrats almost
uniformly promised to speed up, whatever their vague, often inchoate notions
about how to do it” (Rich, “It’s Not the Democrats Who Are Divided,”

York Times

, November 19, 2006). Nichols points out that the “Progressive
Caucus” of the Democrats in the House (about 64, but growing) is substantially
larger than the collections of “Blue Dogs” (perhaps 40) or “New Democrats”
(possibly 50) and that virtually all of the newly-elected Democrats were
to the left of the displaced Republicans (Nichols, “The Crowded Progressive
Caucus,” the


online, November 12, 2006). 

One difficulty with Nichols’s argument is that the Progressive Caucus is
still a minority bloc and on his own count it is smaller than the Blue
Dog plus New Democrat total even within the Democratic Party. The problem
of the Democrats for years has been that with substantial numbers of Blue
Dogs (self-described as conservative to moderate) and New Democrats ready
to abandon the progressive ship on the basis of non-progressive principle,
or at the drop of a lobbyist’s check, progressive actions are easily stymied.
Thus, in earlier years under Carter and Clinton, progressive legislation
and actions were regularly blocked in Congress, despite Democratic majorities
and Democratic presidents. There have been no comparable dissident “liberal”
blocs of Republican legislators, so that George W. Bush has had an easy
ride with Republican legislative majorities. 

With a splintered and not very well disciplined Democratic majority in
the House, a majority in the Senate with Bush ally Joseph Lieberman as
the balancing voter, and with George W. Bush still president and in possession
of a veto power, the possibilities for progressive Democratic action are
sharply limited. It is hoped that the Democrats will at least launch some
serious investigations of Bush administration corruption, law violations,
and mismanagement, but while this may transpire, there are questions about
how many and how aggressively and effectively they will function. The Democratic
leaders will have to work with the executive to get many things done and
they have already indicated that they are keen to avoid “partisanship.”
But non-partisanship will discourage or compromise the needed investigations
and legal actions within congressional power. 


mpeachment is ruled out in advance—“off the table” for both Nancy Pelosi
and John Conyers, although Conyers sponsored an impeachment hearing for
Bush in the basement of the Capitol building on June 19, 2005 and, although
in terms of impeachable behavior, “Bush is the most impeachable president
in American history” (Paul Craig Roberts). Furthermore, experts like Elizabeth
Holtzman, Dave Lindorff, Barbara Olshansky, and Elizabeth de la Vega contend
that impeachment for impeachable offenses is legally obligatory on Pelosi
and company (see former federal prosecutor de la Vega’s plausible hypothetical
indictment of Bush in “Tomgram: United States v. George W. Bush et al.,”
Working for, December 1, 2006). The Democrats seem graciously
willing and even eager to forget that the Bush administration’s effectiveness
was based on partisanship without limit and that in the Clinton years the
Republicans were prepared to sabotage government functions in order to
weaken and discredit a Democratic president. 

One reason beyond their disunity that causes the Democrats to fight so
weakly is their treatment by the media. We now have a very powerful right-wing
media that runs interference for the Republican Party in a hugely unfair
and unbalanced way, which has cowed the “liberal media,” causing them to
work hard to disprove their alleged liberal bias by assailing the Democrats
and showing their patriotic ardor. Thus the liberal media cooperated fully
in the campaigns of denigration that sought Clinton’s impeachment for a
lie without political significance, but none of them have called for Bush’s
impeachment for serial lies of huge political importance. This contrast
in itself is strong evidence of severe institutionalized media bias. 

The media have also regularly peddled and failed to confront the charge
that the Democrats are weak on “national security” and Democratic deficits
and spending have aroused them much more than Republican “borrow and spend”
excesses. The Democrats are under constant pressure to counter their alleged
spending excesses and “national security” caution, whereas the Republicans
have been able to get away with larger and more corruption-ridden spending
excesses and foreign policy actions that have been immensely costly while
actually diminishing national security. 

Nichols, FAIR, and others have pointed out how quickly the mainstream media
have rushed to claim that the new Democratic legislators are conservatives
and not likely to rock the political boat toward populism and cutting-and-running.
The media have also been very sensitive to aggressive Democratic statements
that display “partisanship.” As Molly Ivins says, “So after 12 years of
tolerating lying, cheating and corruption, the press is prepared to lecture
Democrats on how to behave with bipartisan manners.” However, one thing
the media (and John Nichols as well) fail to point out is that if many
of the newly-elected Democrats are pretty conservative—several dozen of
them were carefully selected by New Democrat (and former Israeli warrior)
Illinois congressperson Rahm Emanuel, chair of the Democratic Congressional
Campaign Committee—they will not be truly representing the constituency
that put them into office, a constituency once again denied a progressive
option. The Democratic Party is capitalizing on a rejection of Bush and
policies that Blue Dogs and New Democrats have tended to support, and their
success in keeping out real progressives will help prevent any major attacks
on Bush, his constitution-busting, his foreign policies, and neoliberalism. 

These political constraints on the Democrats flow in large measure from
the fact that the Republicans serve the business community more undeviatingly
than the Democrats, are more trusted by business, and get more financial
support from them and kinder treatment by the corporate media. The Democrats
have to struggle harder to prove their business-supportive credentials,
including their support for “defense” and “national security.” This, and
the related media bias, weakens the Democrats’ capacity for service in
the general public interest and even for rational behavior. As regards
Iraq, the Democrats are now hamstrung by the threat of political costs
in failure to “support our troops” or responsibility for “losing.” Extrication
has political risks in both Iraq and the United States and the Democrats
don’t like risk-taking, especially in a media environment in which a Democratic
war hero can be trashed while Republican war evaders (“I had other priorities”)
and deserters can be essentially free of criticism. 

So the widespread public call for extrication will not see the Democrats
calling for a speedy withdrawal or even a definite timetable for withdrawal.
Pelosi’s attempt to get John Murtha appointed House speaker, if successful,
would have placed in a strong power position one of the few Democrats committed
to an early and rapid withdrawal. His rejection was a defeat for the possibility
of a Bush-contesting Iraq stance on the part of the Democrats. (The winner
of that struggle, Rep. Steny Hoyer, ranks number one in Public Citizen’s
ratings of representatives “most dependent on special interest money to
finance campaigns.” Admittedly, Murtha also ranks high in receipt of special
interest money.) 

The Democrats are also not likely to use their theoretical control over
the military budget to force a rapid withdrawal. Some of them probably
favor an escalation in one more “last push” to establish military control
and “stability,” using this as an alleged response to the demand for change.
One of Harry Reid’s earliest post-election statements was a promise to
boost the military budget by $75 billion “to try to get the Army’s diminished
units back into combat shape” (Jonathan Weisman, “Reid Pledges To Press
Bush On Iraq Policy,”

Washington Post

, November 15, 2006). The Pentagon
is reportedly preparing a larger emergency budget request of $127-150 billion
that will supposedly put the military establishment into conflict with
the Democrats and test the Democrats’ ability to rein in military spending
(see Julian Barnes and Peter Spiegel, “Controversy Over Pentagon’s War-Spending

Los Angeles


, November 29, 2006). On the other hand, it may
be a deliberately inflated request designed to give the Democrats room
to make cuts without impinging on Pentagon plans, a tactic used often in
the past. 

Another major constraint on the Democrats is their close ties to the pro-Israel
Lobby and financial dependence on Lobby-related campaign contributions,
the latter compensating in part for the business community’s pro-Republican
bias. We are talking about 40 percent or more of the Democrats’ campaign
budget, large enough, especially when combined with the aggressiveness
of the Lobby, to make any systematic criticism of Israeli policy, no matter
how egregious, out of the question. Hillary Clinton and Pelosi have been
notorious for Israel-protective apologetics and the new chair of the House
Committee on Foreign Affairs, Tom Lantos, is a virtual agent of the Israeli
state. This is likely to constrain Democratic policy not only on doing
anything about Israeli ethnic cleansing and semi-genocidal attacks on Gaza,
but also in making difficult any constructive actions by the Democrats
on Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, where Lantos, Pelosi, and company are
likely to support or at minimum fail to oppose Israel’s hardline and militaristic
policies (see “AIPAC Eats New Congress Critters for Lunch,”

Signs of the

, November 13, 2006; also Pelosi’s appalling remarks before AIPAC
on May 24, 2005, Mark Gaffney, “Nancy Pelosi Gives a Pep Talk to AIPAC,”
with a copy included on Common, May 27, 2006). 

In short, with the Democratic Party’s electoral triumph we may expect a
small increment in the minimum wage, some other modest economic policy
actions that serve middle America and the poor, and a brake on the Bush
program of service to a tiny elite and regressive environmental policy.
The Bush takedown of the Constitution will probably be halted, but reversals
of the serious encroachments via the PATRIOT and Military Commissions Acts
will face the veto, plus traditional Blue Dog and New Democrat defections.
Impeachment is already off the table and investigations that will take
place may be useful, but may be compromised by the Democrats’ bipartisanship proclivities. 

The Democrats may exercise a modest drag on the military budget, but the
party has long been supportive of a militarized state and party funding,
pressures to prove their “national security” credentials, and fear of charges
of failing to support our troops are likely to sharply constrain Democratic
initiatives here and as regards Iraq. They are likely to follow along with
something like the weak, conditional, slow withdrawal proposals of the
Bush appointed “bipartisan” Iraq Study Group. As regards Israel and Palestine,
the Democrats have been virtually captured by the Lobby and we can expect
nothing from them in this crucial area where U.S.-Israeli policy feeds
hostility to this country as well as Israel. Given Israel’s eagerness to
get the United States to attack Iran, here again the Democrats are likely
to offer nothing constructive and will provide little brake if Bush-Cheney
decide that another war might serve God’s and the Bush administration’s
interests. This country and the world still desperately need a party in
the United States that will support non-violent and non-imperialistic alternative
policies, something that the victorious Democrats do not provide.


Edward S. Herman is an economist, media critic, and author of numerous
articles and books, including



yond Hypocrisy

(South End Press).