Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Why the Democrats Have Problems with their Base

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By Thomas Riggins

10-17-07, 9:32 am

The Friday New York Times (10-12-07) has an interesting article by David M. Herszenhorn (“Party’s Liberal Base Proves Trying to Democrats Back in Power’). It is remarkable that an article like this appears but not one about a disjunction between the Republicans and their base. Maybe later.

The focus of the article is on the Congressional Democrats who came back to power as a result of the 2006 elections. Now that Dems are back in control of Congress why do they, seemingly unlike their Republican counterparts, have problems with their base?

Both parties are heavily dependent on corporate funding and are unduly influenced by lobbying groups which represent conservative forces allied with big business and the military-industrial complex (MIC). The Democrats also have support from unions, environmental groups, much of the gay community and organizations supporting liberal causes of various sorts.

Until recently the country has been run basically by a bipartisan consensus forged during the Cold War. On issues of national defense and foreign policy the two parties were in tandem on anti-communism and building up the military at the expense of domestic programs. The Democrats, however, did try to defend and create domestic programs that would marginally help the poor and the working class, but not at the expense of the overall bipartisan consensus.

When the Republicans took over both houses of Congress during the Clinton years, they effectively cut the Democrats out of decision making process and ran the legislative branch as an ultra-right one party monopoly. They passed many reactionary bills and engaged in symbolic gestures, tying up the business of the House and Senate, even when they knew they could not muster the votes to achieve their objectives.

The most egregious example was the farce of the Clinton Impeachment which was staged even though the Republicans lacked the necessary votes in the Senate to remove Clinton from office. Nevertheless “theatre” was important for them in two ways. To bolster their bona fides with their base and to signal to the most reactionary elements of the MIC that they were truly their hired hands.

So what is the problem with the Democrats? Herszenhorn’s article opens with a dispute between Rep. Barney Frank (the openly gay Mass. Dem.) and gay rights organizations over his removal of “gender identity” coverage from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. As a result, while gay men and lesbians would be protected in their jobs, transsexuals and transgendered people apparently would not.

Frank’s rationale is that the bill would not pass without the change. The NYT says that there is “almost no chance” that Bush would sign the bill so the whole exercise is symbolic. Frank thinks it is better to have a flawed bill presented to the President than a politically correct bill defeated by the conservatives. “This is a moment of truth for responsible liberals in the Democratic Party.” he says.

But to put forward a “non-discrimination” bill, which won’t become a law in any case, and which leaves out a significant portion of people who need its protection, just to curry the votes of some reactionaries who will be more than happy to appear “open minded” with respect to a bill that is dead in the water in any case, is, I think, political cowardice. It is similar to putting forth a civil rights group but leaving out a particular minority because it is politically expedient.

When a bill is not going to become a law anyway, the base has a right to have its representatives stand up for principle. Its has a right to see who supports non-discrimination and who only opportunistically will vote for a watered down bill to curry, hypocritically, political favor.

Just as important as people’s right to know where every one stands on this issue, is the issue of the Iraq war and what the Democratic base can rightfully demand of the Democrats in Congress. It is pretty clear that the 2006 election returned the Democrats to power with a mandate to get us out of Iraq. It is also clear that the Democratic Congress is not fully acting on that mandate and is making unprincipled concessions to Bush and his supporters. Why is this the case?

The Congressional Democrats say they are just being realistic and can't do more on the war. But they do have the power of not send spending bills to the floor and could halt all funding for the war if the President does not agree to set firm withdrawal dates. There is a threat that Lieberman could defect to the Republicans and the Senate would revert to Republican control. But the House could still end the war by refusing to let funding out of committee.

An even greater reason for their inaction is, I fear, their intimate connection with the MIC. American corporations are making billions out of this war. It is not just weapons supply, but there are contracts for clothing, uniforms, construction, vehicles, private security firms, food supply, recreation, etc., and don't forget the big oil firms and their satellite industries. Without support and backing from the MIC most, though not all, members of Congress could not raise the funds necessary to run their election and re-election campaigns and this leads, ultimately, to the excuse for tempered behavior and bipartisanship.

Rep. Adam H. Putnam (chairman of the House Republican Conference) makes the interesting comment that new Democrats in the House, "who actually won seats in districts that voted for Bush, in conservative- moderate districts, having nothing in common with Code Pink or MoveOn" and have contradictions with the liberals who gave the time and money to win the 2006 elections.

"The base turns on them in every single case," Putnam said, "So at some point they have to stop falling into the trap of constantly playing to the base and try to solve problems." This doesn't even make sense. If you are playing to your base why would your base turn on you? For Putnam, "solving problems" means, forget why you were elected (to oust the Republicans) and start compromising on the issues you were elected to address.

And its not just gay issues or the war. The Democrats are joining the Republicans in all sorts of reactionary alliances. The article reports that, "To the delight of Republicans" tensions that the Congressional Democrats have with their base "has also played a role in a host of other issues, including a fight over increased fuel economy standards in the energy bill, and demands for more spending on environmental programs in the farm bill."

Its nice to know, with all we now know about global warming and its relation to gas and co2 emissions from cars, that the Republicans are "delighted" to vote AGAINST increased fuel economy standards, and the Democrats, no doubt to honor their own Al Gore on his recent Nobel Peace Prize for fighting for the environment, are joining with the them. Its always profits before people with the big industries.

In the case of fuel economy Speaker Pelosi was supposedly "thwarted" by fellow Democrat John D. Dingell who was against reduced pollution from auto emissions because organized labor "tied to the auto industry" was also against them. There is some truth to this as the UAW has opposed some fuel efficiency standards because they think they would cost auto workers their jobs. This is a case where neither side's first concern is the environment. It is hard to see, however, how the Speaker could have been "thwarted" had she really been determined.

The Democratic base was also disappointed when Ms. Pelosi left "most of the subsidies intact" in the federal farm subsidy program. This is a program that favors large corporate agribusiness and no doubt "delighted" the Republicans once again.

So, the reason Democrats in Congress have problems with their base is that, unlike the Republicans, they really have two bases. The Republicans are based in the MIC and the right conservative forces which the MIC spawns. The Democrats are also based in the MIC and to a lesser degree with right anti-communist forces allied with the MIC, but they also have a large base of liberals and TINA "progressives" who seek to use the party to make basic reforms in the capitalist system.

On the stump many Democrats have to appeal to this latter base for votes, but once in office they are dependent on the former for the funds and influence necessary for re-election. If the Democrats are to play any progressive role in the coming years they will need to be pushed to the left by mass actions. As it stands today, the Party may be over confident with respect to the 2008 elections. If the Congressional Democrats fail to satisfy their liberal base, the base that put them in office in 2006, they may be in for a nasty reality check in 2008.

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