I've written a lot of columns for Commondreams over the years. But I don't recall any that got as much response as a piece I posted recently urging lefties to support Obama. Many of the responses were heartfelt outbursts of emotion; some of them were surprisingly angry, even venomous, attacks. Hey, I thought we lefties were supposed to be the tolerant ones.
But some of the responses were quite thoughtful, and they call for a response in kind.
Most of the thoughtful writers offered a list of ways the Democrats were quite similar to the Republicans, and they challenged me to give some specific issues on which Dems are demonstrably better than the GOP. Fair enough. So here are just a few highlights. To name all the meaningful differences would take far too long for one column.
Let's start with the big economic picture. Noted economist Larry Bartels has run the numbers for the past sixty years and here's what he found: "Real incomes of middle-class families have grown twice as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans, while the real incomes of working-poor families have grown six times as fast under Democrats as they have under Republicans."
There's no mystery about it. Republican economic policy aims, above all, to protect the interests of the very rich. They make nearly all their money from investments. Inflation is their greatest enemy, because it eats up the profits they expect from their investment. So Republicans regularly throw the economy into recession. Lots of people lose their jobs, which means wages go down, which means inflation stays low.
That's why we had major recessions during the first Reagan administration, the George H.W. Bush administration, and the current Bush administration. Republicans are happy to see the middle class and the poor suffer, as long as they damp down inflation to protect the rich.
On top of that, of course, the GOP gives massive tax cuts to the rich, much larger than the Democrats. That runs up budget deficits. With government having to borrow huge sums, there's more competition for investment capital, so interest rates go up. Working people have to pay more on their mortgages and credit cards, but the rich get better returns on their investments.
Labor unions give huge sums to the Democrats because they understand these significant differences between the economic policies of the two parties. In return, of course, Dems are much more likely to support legislation that protects the rights (and the safety) of workers and helps unions build their strength. Republicans have a long record of supporting laws that gut labor's efforts to organize.
Perhaps the biggest single group of workers who are consistently pro-Democratic is not a union but a professional organization: the National Education Association. Teachers know that Republicans pursue all sorts of strategies for de-funding and weakening public schools. Democrats consistently support public education, which in effect means the right of poor children to get as good an education as the rich.
All of this points to a larger pattern that is sad but true. When you ask "What have the Democrats done that's clearly better than the Republicans?", it can be hard to find powerful answers, because Democrats spend most of their political energy and capital just preventing Republicans from doing even worse things. So the biggest differences between the parties are often most evident when you ask what the Democrats have not done.
Consider Bill Clinton's presidency. When the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 they had a horrendous program called the Contract with America. Clinton risked his political career by throwing the government into gridlock to prevent most of that Contract from becoming law -- one of the many cases where Democrats saved us by making sure nothing got done.
In foreign policy, Clinton resisted pressures for sending U.S. troops out to kill people for a number of years. Finally, tragically, he ordered the attack on Serbia that many of us protested loudly. But he refused to launch the attack on Iraq that the neoconservatives demanded in 1998, even though it would have been politically popular. And Clinton certainly needed to take politically popular steps, to counter the political attack that got him impeached and largely paralyzed his administration. Again, a Democrat spending nearly all his time playing defense.
Now consider Clinton's Supreme Court appointments: Ginsburg and Breyer. They are hardly the true progressives many of us would like to see on the court. But sandwiched in between Republican appointments like Scalia and Thomas before them, and Roberts and Alito after them, they look relatively good. At least they've been able to prevent terrible things that would have happened if their seats had gone to conservatives in the Scalia to Alito mold. Most notably, of course, they've staved off the overturning of Roe v. Wade and protected a woman's right to choose.
Unfortunately they could not prevent the Court's worst moment, handing George W. Bush the presidency in December, 2000. Which brings us to the question: Would things have been different if Al Gore had been president for the last eight years? Much might not have been different. But once again, the question is not whether either party is perfect. The question is whether one party is demonstrably better than another.
Yes, Gore probably would have attacked Afghanistan after 9/11 too. But the war against Iraq was a neocon project from the beginning. Since Clinton had resisted it, and the Pentagon resisted it too, there is no reason to think Gore would have done it.
There's every reason to think Gore would have stuck to the bipartisan, multilateral tradition of foreign policy, as Obama will -- which prevents the worst excesses of the Bush - McCain style of unilateral, preemptive attack. When Obama pledges to consult allies more and negotiate with "enemies," he's not pandering for votes. It's a politically risky position to take. So he probably really means it.
The other area in which Gore probably would have made a real difference is the one that has proven to be his real passion: the environment. A Democratic administration would have signed the Kyoto protocols long ago and given us precious years to begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions, years that have been lost under Republican rule.
As it was, the Dems have been forced to spend all their energies for the last eight years just preventing things from getting worse. Remember, the centerpiece of Bush's second term was supposed to be the privatization of social security. It didn't happen, partly because of public outrage, but partly because the Democrats worked to turn that outrage into politically effective resistance.
We saw something similar in the last month, when the administration was ready to hand $700 billion of taxpayers' money to the Wall Street investment firms pretty much as an outright gift, with only a few strings attached. And even that was too liberal for many Republicans. They wanted no strings at all. The conservatives' "insurance" plan would have let the Wall Street gamblers continue on their merry way, knowing that they'd get to keep all the profits, while the government stood ready to reimburse them for all their losses.
The plan that emerged was not good, to be sure. But the Democrats did manage to buffer its worst excesses by insisting on giving the taxpayers some assets in return for their money, some oversight, and at least a hope of some help for beleaguered homeowners.
A President Obama might have to spend most of his political energy just preventing things from getting worse. But that should be reason enough to support him.
More than that, a Democratic victory -- especially when the Democrat is an African-American -- would move the political center back toward the left, not nearly far enough, but quite perceptibly. It would create an opening for real change and a mood of expecting change, as Kennedy's election did in1960. We on the left could channel our energies into pushing the Democrats in our direction -- which is precisely what the theory of community organizing tells us to do.
If Obama and the Dems fail to fulfill the expectations for change, they could trigger the same kind of grassroots activism in the streets that we saw in the '60s. At least the possibilities would be there.
A McCain victory, on the other hand, would reverse the current leftward creep of the political center. It would create a huge impression that America really is an immovably conservative country, which would foster the expectation that nothing will or can change for the better. Once again, we'd all have to put all our energy into merely preventing the very worst. That kind of negative politics has been the hallmark, and the curse, of our national life for some 35 years now.
Some lefties seem to get a perverse pleasure from it. Apparently they enjoy feeling like an oppressed minority, always on the defensive, bewailing their powerlessness, hurling invective at anyone who suggests a more moderate view that opens the way to small but meaningful changes. I don't understand it. But I know that it won't help the poor, or the unions, or the Iraqis, or the environment, or the women fighting to protect their right of choice.
A vote for Obama is a vote for the possibility that we might begin creating positive visions and working to turn them into reality. Not a guarantee -- but at least a possibility. And then we'd have to start doing the hard work of give-and-take politics. Not voting for Obama means four more years (at least) of accepting powerlessness and working frantically just to stave off the worst political disasters. Isn't that enough of a difference to matter on Election Day?