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Where Have All the Liberal Voices Gone?

CAMPAIGN ROADMAP: A continuing series of articles analyzing the '96 presidential strategies.

September 15, 1996|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as campaign manager for Walter F. Mondale in 1984

WASHINGTON — An unusual event occurred here this week: Two liberal Democrats stood on principle. In this year of the liberal suck-up, the resignations, from Health and Human Services, of Peter Edelman and Mary Jo Bane were as rare as they were refreshing. Both resigned to protest Bill Clinton's signature on the wretched Republican welfare-reform bill. These two individuals stand in sharp contrast to much of the rest of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

From organized labor to Jesse Jackson and Mario Cuomo, to the Washington liberal establishment, all seem to have lost their progressive voices and gone in the tank. The reason is simple: They all expect Presdent Clinton to be reelected by a wide margin and don't want to miss the train. But to assume that the only reason for their silence is to be with a winner would miss part of the story.

Take organized labor. If you wonder why the traditional bulwark of the Democratic Party is spending more money and more man-hours on the reelection of Clinton, perhaps the least labor-oriented Democrat in the last half century, think 42 years. Not since 1954 has organized labor faced the prospect of both the Congress and the White House in the hands of Republicans. As labor's political clout has waned, the threat to various laws and regulations critical to its survival has become quite real. This was particularly true when the Congress went Republican in 1994, after 40 years of Democratic, pro-labor control.

The Republican Congress has been determined to undo favorable labor legislation that has been in place for decades. The only thing stopping them has been a sure Clinton veto. So you can understand why labor needs to go all out to support Clinton. In public, labor leaders say their efforts are, first and foremost, about electing a Democratic Congress and, second, the reelection of Clinton. Privately, many of these same leaders tell me that they are increasingly uncertain about gaining control of the Congress and, therefore, Clinton is their last line of defense. They contend, with some justification, that Clinton will never go along with an assault on their cherished labor laws, as he did on the welfare bill. After all, their constituency can provide lots of money and manpower, something the welfare community cannot.

The motives behind Jackson's and Cuomo's relative silence are mixed. To give both of them the benefit of the doubt, they clearly see Clinton as the only obstacle between a Republican Congress and the enactment of a right-wing agenda that would wipe out most of the liberal gains of the last 40 years. They argue, persuasively, that the idea of a Republican in the White House appointing conservative justices to the Supreme Court, and throughout the federal judiciary, would be disastrous.

The next president almost surely will appoint at least two justices to the Supreme Court and fill numerous vacancies in the district and appeals courts that have been held up by the Republican Senate, which is hoping against hope for a Bob Dole victory. There is no doubt that, for those of us on the left, the courts are our real, last line of defense. So for Jackson, Cuomo and others of their standing, supporting Clinton, despite his signing the Republican welfare bill, makes sense politically and ethically.

Lest we let Jackson and Cuomo off the hook completely, let's not forget that they are also good dads. Cuomo's son Andrew is an assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development and a national leader on homelessness issues. Young Cuomo would like four more years. Jackson's namesake Jesse, newly elected to the House from Chicago, surely has factored into Jackson Sr.'s acquiescence. For all the criticism of the elder Jackson, no one should dare question his allegiance to his family and particularly to young Jesse. He has hopes that his son may some day sit in the Senate.

As for the Washington liberal establishment, there is no good motive for supporting Clinton beyond their collective social survival. Any dissent now, they figure, could jeopardize prime seats at the inauguration and tickets to the choice balls. (Note to the inaugural committee: I will be in Jackson Hole.) I can understand the means/ends argument of labor and of Jackson and Cuomo, but the deafening silence among most of Washington's liberals is disgraceful. (There are exceptions, notably some Democrats in the House and Senate who objected to the welfare bill, but even their objections have been muted.) Especially that of the lobbyist/journalist/hostess crowd. If inaugural tickets are on equal footing with principle, perhaps they might consider the candidacy of Ross Perot or other phonies of his ilk.

People like Edelman and Bane are few and far between this political season. I have been around this business long enough to understand why so many people have put a lid on it, but it just doesn't feel right. Clinton will be reelected, labor will get their protection, Jackson's and Cuomo's sons will continue to shine, the swells will get their inaugural tickets, but lots of kids may not get their meal checks.

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