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September 13 / 14, 2008

The Lessons of 2004

Liberalism and Its Bounds | [print_link]

By JOSHUA FRANK

The amount of insult and betrayal the liberal-to-left spectrum is willing to swallow has few limits, if any. What follows is a survey of one election’s worth of pre- and post-election betrayal from the Democratic Party. The time has arrived for all those that abandoned their movements in 2004 to root for John Kerry to now abandon Barack Obama and the Democrats on the national level and join those working outside of the party’s stifling structure, as was recently called for by Ron Paul, Ralph Nader and other third party candidates running for president this year.

The Howard Dean Machine 

The 2004 election year began with phony “anti-war” candidate ex-Vermont governor Howard Dean leading in the Democratic Party primary polls. Dean’s pragmatic “anti-war” position was indeed conditional. Had the Bush administration produced better intelligence, or had the international community and UN backed the US invasion, Dean would have happily signed on to the Iraq undertaking. However, the conservative and rabidly pro-business Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) panicked in response to Dean’s rise to the top of the primary pack, out of fear that his invigorated base could challenge party brass. 

The DLC’s top choices, “war heroes” (the DLC’s favorite term) Wesley Clark and John Kerry, lagged pathetically behind in the early primary polls. Both Clark and Kerry had difficulty articulating firm stances on the Iraq war, and Clark’s criticisms of the invasion jibed poorly with prior effusive statements supporting not only the war effort, but also several right-wing Republicans throughout the 1980s and 1990s including Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr.  

Kerry, meanwhile, took to baiting Dean’s “anti-war” stance, a variant of which he would later adopt himself, and which the Republican Party (accurately) used to characterize him as a “flip-flopper.” Even Howard Dean’s followers caught on early to Kerry’s equivocations when they made flip-flop Hawaiian sandals with John Kerry caricatures plastered on the bottom during the Iowa primary. 

By summer 2003 Dean had earned undeservedly the “anti-war” label.  But Dean wasn’t “anti-war”; rather he simply disliked the “unilateral” way in which the Bush Administration carried out the Iraq invasion — bypassing the United Nations and NATO. 

Following the assault Dean argued that the occupation had to continue, in spite of journalistic and official reports on the impending difficulties and long-term hostilities to military occupation, permanent establishment of military bases, as well as private US contracting of Iraqi reconstruction. Dean stood by the notion that gun-point democracy was a gracious venture. 

Still, Dean played his “anti-war” card marvelously, and his public persona admittedly contained more magnetism than the cardboard cut-outs of Kerry, Clark, Gephardt, and Joseph Lieberman, combined. Petrified, the DLC began a concerted campaign to take Dean down.

DLC machinations from many corrupt characters within the organization lasted right up to the disastrous Iowa caucus, in which Dean placed a miserable third, and derailed his chances of capturing the nomination and solidified his downfall when the media overplayed his histrionic rallying speech to his youthful supporters.  

As Dean recounted in his campaign memoir, You Have the Power, DLC co-founding member, star, and former President Bill Clinton placed a wave of influential phone calls to Dean supporters during the months prior to the Iowa caucus, urging them to throw their support behind Wesley Clark instead. 

Clinton’s rationale?  A homophobic one.  Dean, declared Clinton, had “forfeited his right to run for President” because he had signed a bill in Vermont as governor permitting civil unions.  Clinton’s anti-gay position would repeat itself during the Kerry 2004 campaign, when Clinton urged, albeit unsuccessfully, Kerry to embrace the proposed federal gay marriage ban. 

Other DLC elements also worked actively to portray Dean as an unstable radical.  The DLC’s flagship publication labeled him “misguided,” “an aberration,” and an “activist” who was “defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist, interest-group liberalism at home.” 

Meanwhile, other DLC bankrollers founded an ad hoc group, with DLC fundraiser David Jones at the helm, to air negative ads in Iowa that attacked Dean from the faux-left, noting his NRA endorsements and support for NAFTA, among other positions that betrayed the “progressive” persona Dean and his campaign manager Joe Trippi whipped out from time to time in front of accommodating crowds.

The torrent of attack ads and underhanded DLC background activity from the likes of Clinton and his ilk effectively doomed Dean’s candidacy, as did the fact that most of his supporters were unable to realize that political mobilization extends beyond the world of inane political blogs and button clicking. 

Dennis was not, and never will be, a Menace 

With Howard Dean neutralized, one anti-war candidacy soldiered on — that of Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who opposed the war in principle throughout and called for an end to occupation within six months. As Democratic candidate after Democratic candidate dropped out of the race, and as John Kerry ascended and locked up the required delegates for the nomination, Kucinich nonetheless declared that he would stay in the race until the Democratic National Convention (DNC), so as to influence the Democratic Party’s platform and to allow principled anti-war voters an outlet and voice.

Nevertheless, as the Convention date approached, Kucinich’s independence appeared to wane. In a public speech that evoked reflexive pity from so many who observed, Kucinich endorsed his party’s pro-war candidate, John Kerry, weeks before the DNC, despite having throughout his campaign declared the Iraq war the central issue of the election season. 

“Unless we have a firm and unshakeable resolve for John Kerry, we will have no opportunity to take America in a new direction,” Kucinich declared.  “Unity is essential.” Kucinich repeated this mantra later in the fall of 2004 with a video on his website that implored supporters to “close ranks.” “Do we have differences of opinion? Yes. But the time is over to continue talking about those [issues],” he remarked.

Meanwhile, many Kucinich delegates at the convention felt dejected. Initially, the man for whom they had devoted much time and energy intimated that he would “release” them, paving the way for their robotic votes for Kerry.  

Later, after hearing impassioned (and tearful) testimonies from his delegates, Kucinich changed his mind, and told them to “vote their conscience.”  Fair enough.  But most ended up voting for Kerry regardless. And what did they receive in return for their candidate and most of their delegates’ support for Kerry?  Not much. 

Despite the generally symbolic role of the platform in modern politics (GW Bush in 2000 infamously bragged that he had never read the GOP platform), seventeen Kucinich platform demands were axed in exchange for a borderline nonsensical statement with no hint of an exit strategy or an impending pullout from Iraq.  It pledged to remove troops “when appropriate so that the military support needed by a sovereign Iraqi government will no longer be seen as the direct continuation of an American military presence.” 

Absent from the platform was support for Palestinian rights, a repeal of the PATRIOT Act, as well as repudiation of the pre-emptive war doctrine in principle and as executed in Iraq. 

“I ask you, are millions of anti-war/anti-occupation Americans welcome in the Democratic Party? If such voters are indeed welcome, I urge you to demonstrate this by permitting debate within the party on the war and occupation issue, both in Miami and in Boston,” wrote Jessie Jackson, prior to campaigning for a candidate who said nary a word about the exponential proliferation of the racist prison-industrial complex, increasing poverty, or black male unemployment, now over 50% in New York City alone. 

As much as one can appreciate Congressman Kucinich’s past efforts, it is clear that noble attempts to transform the Democratic Party from within are wasted endeavors.  

The convention itself was a difficult affair for many who attended.  As polls indicated, 80-90% of the attending delegates declared themselves anti-war.  Those trying to express such a view quickly received the muzzle. 

Charles Underwood, the only Minnesota Kucinich delegate to vote for Kucinich, told Amy Goodman’s radio program Democracy Now!: “I am just very disappointed that there is no ability to express any hope for peace on the floor of this convention. We have had our signs confiscated, we’ve had our scarves for peace, you know, ‘Delegate For Peace,’ confiscated. We have had people that tell us to sit down and be quiet.” 

Meanwhile, the anti-war delegates were not lucky enough to hear any speeches at the DNC that matched their point of view, and in fact were presented with two gung-ho militaristic ones instead. 

Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards told the anti-war delegates: “We will always use our military might to keep the American people safe. And we, John and I, will have one clear unmistakable message for al Qaeda and these terrorists. You cannot run. You cannot hide.  And we will destroy you.” 

Dissent Squashed 

Having neutralized Dean and later Kucinich, the two major voices of dissent in the party (one superficial, the other genuine), Kerry embraced the pre-emptive war doctrine on live national television during the Presidential debates, all while declaring alternately that the Iraq war was a “mistake,” and all while expressing support for continued occupation.  Classification as “flip-flopper” worked beautifully for Karl Rove and the GOP. 

Meanwhile, Kerry allowed a growing number of rogues to assist his crafting of foreign policy.  Richard Holbrooke, Assistant Secretary of State to Jimmy Carter and green-stamper of additional arms shipments to Indonesia during the Suharto regime, wrote many rapid-response memos on Kerry’s web site.  

Holbrooke’s actions during the Carter administration occurred as Indonesian repression of East Timor reached genocidal levels. Kerry’s other foreign policy appointee, Rand Beers, crafted the notorious Plan Colombia, which Kerry took the lead in boosting through the legislature towards the tail-end of the Clinton Administration.  

Plan Colombia allocates billions of dollars in military aid (monetary and arms) to the country’s right-wing government.  Originally meant for defoliation of coca crops (which have devastated the peasant economy and legal enterprises such as sugar and coffee), according to investigative reporting, Plan Colombia funds are closely linked to violent repression of trade unionists. Colombia is now the top site for murders of trade unionists in the world.  

Certainly Kerry’s loss did not come as a surprise. He offered few positive alternatives, other than being the “anybody” in “Anybody But Bush.” His economic prescriptions were tepid, and his stances on foreign policy issues such as war and Empire reflected those of the neocons. 

When all the hype about the “youth vote,” “e-activism,” “buses to Ohio,” and “house DVD parties” cleared so tragically and so pathetically on Election Day 2004 — and with devout Kerry-Edwards supporters battling denial — the only forces on the left remaining were the Anti-Anybody-But-Bush crew.  Indeed the anti-ABBers had been vindicated. 

The Bleak Dem Future 

However, many on the liberal-to-left spectrum still aren’t learning.  Barack Obama has done his best to resurrect the lies of a progressive Democratic Party. Nicholas Kristof, days after the November disaster of 2004, urged that it is “time to get religion” for progressives and Democrats.  Chat room and bulletin board rumbling suggests a drive for a Hillary Clinton Presidential DLC run in 2008. The Democratic future was, and is, indeed bleak. 

Meanwhile, the Democrats continued self-destructive tendencies and betrayal of loyal constituencies, enthusiastically nominating pro-war, anti-choice, Nevada extremist Harry Reid for the party’s Senate leader.  Reid, a conservative Mormon, received slightly under a 30% rating from NARAL, the largest pro-choice advocacy group in the US.

Reid’s nomination came after months of cheap Nader-baiting, in which Democrats and liberals characterized Ralph Nader’s run as a threat to abortion rights. Comparable wrath directed against the anti-choice Reid nomination did not exist, even though Reid’s elevation to one of the most influential Senate positions, and the highest post held by a Democrat in the country, will determine the strength, or rather the weakness of Democratic opposition to federal judicial appointments.

The most morally reprehensible action came later after the election with the nomination of Alberto Gonzales for Attorney General.  Much of the mainstream press and Democrats described John Ashcroft’s replacement as “moderate.”  But Gonzales wrote the infamous memos essentially authorizing the Bush Administration to flout international human rights law as defined in the Geneva Convention.  

So what did the liberals do?  The ACLU would not “take an official position.”  Pro-war Democrat Charles Schumer opined: “It’s encouraging that the president has chosen someone less polarizing.”  And Patrick Leahy, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee chimed in tellingly: “I like him.” 

Some may continue to recommend “reforming the Democratic Party from within.” Many Nader bashers and ABBers adopted such a line in 2004, claiming that if Nader would only run as a Democratic candidate for the party’s Presidential nomination, he could do oh-so-much to influence its direction.  Yet the examples of Dean and Kucinich have shown us what happens when one makes such attempts — relentless attacks, backstabbing, and silencing. Reformism within the Democratic Party is a hopeless endeavor. 

A little about the new Democratic hope. Like the majority of his colleagues, Obama has done very little to change the face of American politics. He has voted for war spending, appeased the pro-Israel lobby, and helped build the erroneous case against Iran, saying nothing about Israel’s plentiful arsenal of nuclear warheads. In short, Barack Obama is not an ally to those of us who oppose the ambiguous War on Terror. 

“I want you to know that today I’ll be speaking from my heart, and as a true friend of Israel,” Obama announced a day after he locked up his party’s nomination to a crowd of pro-Israel zealots. “[W]hen I visit with AIPAC, I am among friends, Good friends. Friends who share my strong commitment to make sure that the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable today, tomorrow, and forever.”

Yet here we are again, like 2004, with “progressives” and other lefties ogling a hope-filled candidacy. But it’s not just Obama’s war support that should raise our hackles. 

Obama supports the death penalty, opposes single-payer health care, supports looking into nuclear energy, opposes a carbon pollution tax, supports sending more troops to Afghanistan, and will not end the vast array of federal subsidies to corporations, including those to the oil and gas cartel. 

And as the United States economy slides into a deep recession, Barack Obama is promising more of the same, despite his criticism of John McCain’s economic plan. But behind the curtains of Obama’s strategy team is the same set of economic troglodyte intellectuals that led us in to our current financial disaster. 

Obama’s advisory team includes Harvard economist Jeffrey Liebman, a former Clinton adviser, who believes we ought to privatize social security. Then we have the renowned David Cutler, another Harvardite, who believes our economy can be boosted through an increase in privatized health care costs. Writing for New England Journal of Medicine in 2006, Cutler explained, “The rising cost … of health care has been the source of a lot of saber rattling in the media and the public square, without anyone seriously analyzing the benefits gained.” 

And that’s just the tip of a very large iceberg. 

As we again face a momentous election and try to amass opposition to the war in Iraq, let’s not forget what happened to the antiwar movement under the miserable and failing banner of “Anybody But Bush,” which now reads “Nobody but Obama.” It is time for an end to a bankrupt fusion politics, which ensures that we are left out election after election. 

Joshua Frank is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of the brand new book Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press in July 2008. 

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