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COLUMN LEFT / ALEXANDER COCKBURN

Clinton's Snubs Don't Cool Labor's Ardor : Ralph Nader, the only real alternative for the left, is running a zombie campaign.

June 16, 1996|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn is the coauthor, with Ken Silverstein, of "Washington Babylon," new from Verso

Here we are, a few weeks away from the Democratic Party convention with Bill Clinton using Bob Dole's speeches as campaign literature, so what is happening on what used to be called "the left"?

Start with the base for any serious radical movement in this country, labor. In late March, the AFL-CIO, stepping to a brighter future under its new president, John Sweeney, endorsed Clinton for reelection. This eager nod of approval from Big Labor elicited no answering commitment from Clinton to address labor's concerns.

The man described in 1993 by conservative political commentator Kevin Phillips as the most antilabor president of the 20th century pushed through NAFTA and GATT, put up no serious fight for striker replacement, destroyed health care reform as an issue, failed to fight for a hike in the minimum wage when he had both houses of Congress behind him in the first two years of his term and boasts of laying off federal workers.

Almost the only scrap labor has gotten in the Clinton years has been a presidential order that companies working federal contracts cannot break strikes by hiring permanent replacements. The president has no problem with short-term scabs who are regularly used to break or blunt strikes. Labor supporters of Clinton argue that the National Labor Relations Board has been less a creature of employers in Clinton-time and point out that the union membership across the nation has increased by 3% since 1982.

Such defenses look pretty flabby next to the impact of Clinton's basic economic strategy, governed by Wall Street and the bond houses. While the AFL-CIO pumps for Clinton, and a supposed labor militant like Dennis Rivera of New York's hospital workers insists that Clinton's reelection is the most important project of labor for the last 50 years, Foreign Affairs tells the stark truth.

This journal of the Eastern elites, mustered in the Council on Foreign Relations, blazons in its May-June issue an article by Ethan Kapstein deriding Clinton's "Hoover-like" attacks on big government. "Restrictive economic policies--reduced deficits, reduced spending, reduced taxes and the most exalted deity, low inflation--have favored financial interests at the expense of workers and have created an international rentier class."

When Foreign Affairs lines up to the left of labor, you have to know that things are in lousy shape. Of course, workers and labor leaders know how bad Clinton has been for them, and they've been asking themselves what alternative there might be. Many don't think there is one.

This debate is mirrored in the nation's green movement, where leaders of the big national environmental organizations have adopted a Clinton-at-all-costs strategy and put a benign gloss on the president's wretched enviro record, even though many of their members accurately perceive the Clinton years as in many ways worse than the Reagan and Bush presidencies. Full-page newspaper advertisements put together by green militants and backed by Hollywood names (except the ever-loyal Barbra Streisand) have said straightforwardly that Bill Clinton and Al Gore are sellouts and that the best course is to vote for Ralph Nader.

There are many grass-roots greens prepared to tell the Democrats that they don't think it will make much difference whether Bill Clinton or Bob Dole sits in the White House for the next four years. The trouble is that Nader is running a zombie candidacy, as though he's profoundly embarrassed to be on the Green Party ticket in California and Oregon--both vital states for Clinton where Nader really could hold the president's feet to the fire.

And if Nader is limply betraying the enthusiasm of many people eagerly working in his cause, some of them hoping to use his coattails to create a third-party presence in local races, militant labor is even more frightened of the electoral fray. The new Labor Party, which came into being last weekend in Cleveland with 1,300 delegates from many unions around the country, has for now decided against any electoral strategy for the foreseeable future.

Conservatives marvel at the way Clinton has adopted a full-fledged Republican platform, grandstanding on crime and welfare with barely a squeak of protest from the constituencies he has betrayed. This is surely the darkest moment for the left in many years, abject in its impotence.

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