Clinton and the Left

— Harry Brighouse

The stirrings of independent political action that began in the Bush years have gathered force. Labor Party Advocates has grown and is projecting a national conference in late 1995. The New Party has run its own candidates with some success in local races, and the New Progressive Party has a statewide presence with ballot status in Wisconsin.

The Green Party has had a substantial electoral presence in a number of the smaller states. The Green candidate for governor of New Mexico, Robert Mondragon, won 10% of the November vote.

The other impulse has been to see Clinton as the left wing of what is possible in conservative times. This sensibility motivated many who caved in or wavered on single-payer health care. It was among the considerations causing many to fall silent about the repressive crime bill.

The mid-term election results show a support for independent politics which, however small, is unprecedented in recent history. Ironically, however, they are only likely to reinforce the pro-Clinton wing of the left. It is now easier than ever before to portray Clinton as a left-liberal reformer who has fallen to forces beyond his control. When welfare is attacked, Clinton and his radical supporters can collapse while laying the blame for callousness on Gingrich and Dole. And in the electoral arena, pressure will increase on left-liberals to support Democrats as the lesser evil lest independents split the vote.

The arguments for this case have already been made in the last half year in the pages of Dissent, In These Times and the Nation. The exchange in the Nation was initiated by two notable doyens of the New Left, Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, who argue that the left has been at fault for giving insufficient credit and support to Clinton in his legislative trials.

They argue that while Clinton is no hero (“not even an FDR”), the left’s fate is tied to his, because Clinton’s opponent in 1996 will not be “Jerry Brown or Jesse Jackson or the candidate of some yet-to-be-invented labor/feminist/rainbow third party” but, of course, Bob Dole or Jack Kemp.

Correctly anticipating November’s electoral disaster for the Democrats, David Moberg in ITT made a different argument – that the logic of campaigning for re-election may drive Clinton to the left. Moberg writes, wishfully,

“He can dust off his campaign pledge of `Putting People First’ and get behind progressive proposals, such as proposing a strategy to guarantee a job to everyone who wants one... He can challenge members of Congress, and when they balk, he can take his case to the American people. He can spend the next two years attacking the big money domination of politics...

Both arguments are wrong. The left is neither big enough nor sufficiently established in the corridors of Washington to have a significant influence upon Clinton by offering him its friendship. Nor does Clinton want friends on the left. The only proposal which the Health Care Task Force was forbidden to consider was single-payer, and the AFL-CIO’s opposition to NAFTA won only caustic remarks from Clinton about the “muscle-bound.”

Fantasies about a populist conclusion to Clinton’s first term conveniently suppress memories of the lifetime he spent grooming himself to lead an aggressively pro-corporate Democratic Leadership Council. Throughout his life – as governor of Arkansas, advocate within the party, and president – he has been faithful to those who pay his bills. Clinton is the symbol of, not the solution to, a democracy held hostage to big business.

Opinion polls after the election showed that the tiny proportion of the electorate that was enticed to vote believed not that they were voting for Dole or Gingrich or Kemp, but that they were voting against Democrats. The corruption and failure of both parties are obvious to an alienated and disgusted citizenry. What has the left to gain by associating itself with their disgrace?

The logic of re-election will only drive Clinton further to the right. To win again in 1996 he must be able to show that he has done something, and that will depend upon the cooperation of at least some of the Republicans in the House and the Senate. Clinton, unlike his supporters on the left, understands this quite well. That is why his first public pronouncement after the election was to offer to accept his part in the debacle and work with Congress to overcome gridlock. That told us all we need to know about what he will achieve in the next two years, and it won’t be Putting People First.

The wisest approach for the left to a Clinton administration in crisis is to strengthen the second tendency: the new willingness in some quarters to abandon the Democratic Party both organizationally and electorally and to build serious independent alternatives. This does not require a pie-in-the-sky hallucination, despite what the pro-Clinton left alleges.

The moderate successes of the Greens and the New Party, the energy behind Labor Party Advocates: these are the places to begin building. It is possible, and not completely outlandish, to hope that these fledgling efforts might come together in unity by 1996, in time to introduce a sensible left-wing alternative into a national debate that otherwise will continue to be captured by the demagogic right.

ATC 54, January-February 1995