At the moment of its greatest opportu nity in the postwar era, the left in America is becalmed on the political sidelines. Years of railing against the constrictions of a two-party system (one-party in all essential attributes) have now given way to a serious assault on that system. So we applaud the dismay provoked by Ross Perot among the nation's political Establishment.
Though Perot is non-negotiable as political currency for the left, his insurgency offers the left an unprecedented chance to enter this year's presidential race as an independent force with its own candidate. Instead, a substantial segment of the nation's radical organizers is once again wanly reporting for duty inside the crumbled battlements of the Democratic Party.
That party is in a state of irreversible decay. It is incapable of generating either the vision or the candidate to offer any radical challenge to the status quo. The rhetoric arising from the Democratic Convention in New York may be fragrant with references to the glorious heritage of F.D.R., but the noisome truth is to be found in the party's platform and the economic proposals of its candidate, Bill Clinton.
Dutifully garnished with slogans about "empowerment," Clinton's plan offers no purchase on America's long-term economic crisis. He reserves his fieriest rhetoric for vocational training, even pledging a 1.5% annual levy (about $45 billion, though you won't find this number in Clinton's document) on corporate payrolls to help finance such training. But the obvious question is never answered: training for what? Behind the ringing phrases lurks the budgetary vision of a small-town chamber of commerce.
For investment in transportation, for an "informational network," for military conversion and the environment, for a 100,000-strong national police corps, Clinton allocates just $20 billion of his first presidential budget. The rest is hot air. For primary education--the subject of many an uplifting paragraph in Clinton's plan--there is no specific budgetary allocation at all.
Clinton has had the effrontery to claim that his plan was partly inspired by a $50-billion scheme to get the economy moving that was advanced a few weeks ago by such heavyweight economists as James Tobin and Lawrence Klein. But even though many of these traditionally loyal Democrats have dutifully swung into line behind Clinton, the two plans have nothing in common. The economists were arguing for an expansion of the deficit to jump-start recovery. Clinton pledges to reduce the deficit. That Jesse Jackson should have welcomed Clinton's plan is yet more evidence of Jackson's willingness to swallow any offal so long as he can attend the banquet.
Clinton has made plain his indifference to the left, to labor, to the old progressive coalitions. In foreign policy he is, in many instances, to the right of George Bush. The Sister Souljah affair displayed his calculated contempt for the core constituencies of Jackson's campaigns in the 1980s.
The left should return the compliment. It is not too late for a fourth candidate, especially one with an active national network, to enter the lists in most states as the representative of an independent political party. The task this year is winning not the 50% necessary in a two-way race, but the 25% to 30% needed in each state in a four-way contest. In 14 states, with up to 170 electoral votes, blacks make up more than 13% of the voting-age population.
It is conceivable that in a four-way contest, the Democratic ticket would get less than 25% of the vote, thus losing "majority party" status. Even if a Rainbow ticket won only 5%, it would qualify for millions in federal funds after the election, which could be used for building a much stronger, permanent party.
Who could lead such a candidacy? Ralph Nader has demonstrated that he cannot reach the largest and most neglected element of the progressive base, minorities and working-class families. Jerry Brown, ever loyal to the party he decries, now looks to be more gadfly than true rebel. No labor leader or woman's party candidate seems to have developed sufficient stature.
A third Jackson campaign, this time outside the Democratic Party, seems beyond the realm of possibility. Bizarrely, Jackson sets the greatest stock in winning legitimacy in a party that is little better than a vacuum. But if he were to bolt the Democratic Party and lead a fourth-candidate independent ticket he would at last win the respect and historical weight he has always craved and fought for.
Political history is made by recognizing and seizing opportunity. If Perot can see this, why not the left?