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COLUMN LEFT/ ALEXANDER COCKBURN : Votes For 'Any Democrat' Will Bring Us Grief : Forget the South's verdict. The West should look to one of its own--yes, Jerry Brown.

March 08, 1992|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

Early March only and already I'm catching flak from the any-Democrat-will-do crowd. After I'd taken a couple of swipes at Clinton and Tsongas, a left economist-ecologist of high repute wrote to me in the following terms:

"I know you make your living debunking as well as investigating, but why can't you begin to tell your readers that we need a Demo President, any Democrat, because a) Bush is loading up the federal courts with Neanderthals, and a Demo won't; and b) a Demo would kick 6,000 to 7,000 appointed bureaucrats out of Washington--Republicans who people like you and me have no access to--and replace them with another 6,000 to 7,000 appointees, some of whom would be friends and co-workers of ours, and hundreds of whom would be accessible to all those in popular struggles."

Such urging to fall in behind the Democratic standard usually comes in October of a presidential election year. This letter was written in February, which shows how desperate people are, and how fearful, that criticism of any Democrat will spoil the chance of evicting Bush come November.

My economist friend has a point, even if his dreams of "access" to a new crowd of patronage appointees are somewhat overstated. So I tried to think constructively. President Tsongas? Admittedly, he's no fool. Since Americans care little for economic theory but are familiar with chemotherapy, Paul Tsongas has conflated the two. Everyone knows someone who went through the pain and horror of chemotherapy, threw up hour upon hour, had their hair fall out. Now here's Tsongas saying that the economy has cancer and has to take chemo. This is something every American can relate to. Even so, it's awfully hard to take this wan corporate lawyer seriously as a candidate.

As I tried to summon positive thoughts about Tsongas and Clinton, I remembered the last time there was a Democratic President appointing non-Neanderthal judges and installing the Democratic patronage system in Washington.

Jimmy Carter was a social liberal and economic conservative, just like Tsongas. Right after he was sworn in, in 1977, Democratic leaders in Congress came to Carter to get reauthorization of wage-price controls. Carter promptly called a press conference, and in language that could have been dictated by the Business Roundtable, denounced wage-price controls in the name of the free market, whose built-in corrective mechanisms, he claimed, would take care of inflation.

He thereby doomed his chances of reelection and opened the door, four years down the road, to Reagan, the Neanderthal judges and the 7,000 bureaucrats of Republican stripe, hue and kidney. In 1979, when the consumer price index was rocketing up at rates of 13% to 14% and inflation was almost out of control, Carter had, two years earlier, surrendered the tool that could have saved his Administration.

Moral: "Any-Democrat-will-do" can lead rapidly to "any-Republican-would-be-better."

As a matter of personal preference, I hope Jerry Brown continues to prosper. He's the only Democratic candidate I've listened to who has given evidence of awareness that the times demand something more intellectually nourishing than standard-issue neoliberalism. Liberals get hung up on his flat-tax proposal on the grounds that it surrenders the principle of progressivity, which of course it does. But the real-life tax code does that anyway, and is probably more regressive than Brown's proposed 13% flat tax, with deductions only for home mortgage interest, rent and charitable contributions.

Brown, from the eminence of his Colorado victory, should look ahead into the summer and the convention where, if he stays on track, he could arrive with a respectable number of delegates. Along the way, he will have established himself as the leader of all those constituencies shunned by the neoliberals and their Beltway strategists. Then he'll have a choice. He can either get a prime-time speech (maybe) and some language in the platform, just as Jesse Jackson did, and then get kicked off the stage, just as Jesse Jackson was. Or he can reject these overtures, rock the boat at the convention and refuse to quit the field. The country needs a realignment and it needs someone on the liberal end of the spectrum articulating issues the the way Pat Buchanan does for the right.

Looking at the enormous character and policy deficits encumbering Clinton and Tsongas, the West should look more seriously at one of its own. Clinton may do well in the South on Tuesday, but this should not persuade the West that he's a decent choice, or even an electable one.

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