THE conventional wisdom is that Bill Clinton's fall from grace over the pardon hysteria has hurt the Democratic Party. In fact, Clinton's disgrace is a blessing in disguise for Democrats, at least for those who want the party to stand for social justice and economic fairness. Had Clinton exited the White House cleanly, his continued leadership would have enriched the party financially but burdened it politically and morally.
When Clinton pardoned a fugitive financier on his last day in office, he appeared to end his administration in the manner he had governed for eight years - by obliging the well-heeled and well-connected, and by figuring that his rhetorical gifts and charisma would obscure the absence of principle. (There were only a few pardons for the thousands of nonviolent drug offenders, largely poor and minority, who fill America's prisons.)
In assessing Clinton's impact on his party, it's worth remembering that when he entered the White House, Democrats controlled the U.S. Senate 57-43, the U.S. House 258-176 and the country's governorships 30-18. Under his leadership, the party has gone from majority to minority status.
Another legacy for the Democrats is money-saturated politics that values party donors more than activists, weighing policy in terms of fund-raising potential. Clintonism is a zig-zagging ideology that seeks the votes of liberals and racial minorities while borrowing Republican policies in an effort to hew to "the center," seldom straying far from the interests of corporate America.
Since corporate dollars flow more naturally toward Republicans, the grubbing of the Clintonites for this same cash has caused not only ethical lapses but corruption of Democratic positions. In 1993-94, when they controlled the White House and Congress, it was the Democrats who blocked campaign finance reform. In 1996, it was the Clinton-Gore campaign that widened the soft-money loophole into a canyon that obliterated campaign finance laws.
Give the Clintonites credit for achieving the seemingly impossible: They've allowed Republicans to pose as the party of campaign finance rectitude.
The sad truth about the Marc Rich pardon is that it was not atypical for Clinton to succumb to the entreaties of major donors and their high-powered lawyers and lobbyists. Indeed, it was business as usual in the Clinton-Gore administration, like the corporate-drafted trade deals the White House championed and the 1996 giveaway to media conglomerates known as Telecommunications Deregulation. (Al Gore bragged about supporting media deregulation on his presidential campaign Web site.)
While the Gore-Lieberman defeat in 2000 gave Republicans control of the White House and Congress for the first time in half a century, the Democratic debacle in 1994 was just as momentous. The Gingrich victory was the natural consequence of Clintonism, as the Republicans took over Congress in low-turnout elections with an activist base inspired by a right-wing program.
The Democratic base, meanwhile, was disoriented and dispirited. They'd just witnessed the Clinton White House steamroll over labor, environmental and consumer rights advocates to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). And they'd seen a president and first lady unwilling to fight for Canadian-style national health insurance - instead offering a proposal supported by big insurers that was so bureaucratic and convoluted it collapsed of its own weight without coming up for a vote.
Behind the rise of Clintonism has been the Democratic Leadership Council, a Washington outfit of largely Southern Democratic politicians that makes up for its lack of a mass base with a bounty of corporate cash - from a wide array of firms such as ARCO, Chevron, Du Pont, Philip Morris and Merck. It has become the main policy voice of corporate America inside the Democratic Party, supporting "free trade," partial privatization of Social Security, increased military spending and other positions unpopular with rank-and-file Democrats. It was set up to weaken the power of unions, feminists and civil rights activists in Washington.
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Years ago, these folks might have been called "Rockefeller Republicans"; now they dominate the party of working people. Gore was one of the founders of the DLC in the mid-1980s. Joe Lieberman was the group's chairman when he was drafted by Gore last year. Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, was its national chairman when he launched his long-shot bid for the presidency in 1991.
Even if Clinton were to disappear in disgrace, there would still remain a well-funded and influential DLC. A dinner last month honoring Lieberman and benefiting a DLC-allied political committee, the New Democrats Network, raised $1.2 million dollars from the likes of Aetna, American Airlines, AT&T, Citicorp and GE. When elite media pundits - many of whom cheer the DLC's economic conservatism and social liberalism - discuss Democratic presidential prospects for 2004, they regularly promote DLCers such as Gore, Lieberman and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, the group's new chairman.
Most Democratic activists and many office-holders vigorously oppose the DLC and its Republican-lite agenda. Some refer to it as "Democrats for the Leisure Class." The Congressional Progressive Caucus, which is diametrically opposed to the DLC, has more than 50 members in the U.S. House.
Progressive, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. recently wrote: "In 1992, a conservative Democrat, Bill Clinton, selected an even more conservative running mate, Al Gore, who in 2000 selected an even more conservative running mate, Joseph Lieberman. By helping to shift the Democratic Party and the country further right, a very conservative George W. Bush could select an ultra-conservative Dick Cheney as his running mate - and win."
In last year's presidential contest that pitted the DLC ticket of Gore-Lieberman against the GOP, there was no debate on many issues that matter to the Democratic base - from trade, corporate welfare and bloated military spending to criminal justice issues like capital punishment and the counterproductive, racially tinged drug war, which helped boost America's prison population during the Clinton years from 1.4 million to more than 2 million people.
Many Democrats rebelled against the presidential ticket in 2000 by voting Green for Ralph Nader. Millions more voted Democratic grudgingly to fend off the right wing. Ironically, the best way for progressive activists to fend off right-wingers might be to imitate them. Beginning about 25 years ago, cultural conservatives and the religious right became local Republican activists, immersing themselves in local elections and primary fights. Then, state by state, they took over the Republican Party and energized it for their grassroots agenda of guns, God and tax cuts. Their success within the GOP has reshaped the national debate.
Progressive activists - for labor, consumer, environmental, women's and civil rights - might similarly enter local and Democratic primary battles to elect their own and defeat candidates anointed by big money and the DLC. Such local activists would find support in Washington from unions and other issues groups, as well as counterweights to the DLC like the Campaign for America's Future and Americans for Democratic Action. If it becomes clear that money has rendered the Democratic Party's structure impenetrable to its own activist base, the resulting exodus to the Green Party or some other third party will dwarf last year's protest vote for Nader.
Before the pardon furor, Bill Clinton was intent on remaining the leader of the Democratic Party. Toward that end, he installed his personal fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe - a financial executive well-connected to big business - as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Once hailed by media pundits for steering Democrats toward centrism, Clinton is now tarnished by government and media probes; NBC News airs "Clinton Watch" segments on the scandal.
In theory, Clinton has exited Washington. But the horse he rode in on - money-drenched DLC politics - is still there, alive and kicking.