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Greed Is Putting Party in Peril

December 01, 2002|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips is the author of "Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich."

WASHINGTON — If the Democratic Party's recent midterm election campaign was weak and shallow, the same can be said of its November post-midterm-election debate over whether to move left or right. Bluntly put, the party of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman has been selling its soul to fill its campaign wallet and is now in big trouble, especially among three key longtime constituencies: blacks, Latinos and lower-income Southern whites.

This, in turn, has become a threat to the balance of power in Washington and to the policymaking process. The "opposition" party is verging on incapacity. Its old faces are beyond Botox or relevant speech therapy. Few new ones are in sight.

Not that forthright ideology is the cure -- moving leftward under Nancy Pelosi, the new Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, or rightward under the aegis of the Washington-based Democratic Leadership Council. However, there is some basic philosophy involved, and if the Democrats cannot comprehend this, they face considerable peril.

In some respects, to be sure, the midterm Democratic showing was not bad. Nationally, the parties are still more or less even, and hardly any antiwar Democratic incumbents were defeated, a striking caveat to supposed war fever. George W. Bush, correctly, has declined to claim an ideological mandate. Furthermore, over the last two decades, midterm congressional results have been less and less predictive of the next presidential election, a warning for 2002 election interpreters.

What the Democrats must (and might not yet) fully comprehend is their devastating "un-mandate." Turnout among the core Democratic constituencies -- minorities and low-incomers -- plummeted, not least in all-important California.

The weakening economy and skewed wealth distribution were obvious rallying points, yet Democratic leaders, despite having the freedom that comes from being out of power nationally, abandoned them, save for cliches about protecting Social Security and providing prescription drugs.

While hardly new, this marked an escalation in the national party's willingness to discard old beliefs and the interests of ordinary citizens in order to woo big-contributor money that has captured the center of U.S. politics -- the new "venal center."

It is a critical and depressing transformation. Fifty years ago, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. identified a "vital center" in American politics, crediting Democrats with building a new and constructive moderate coalition under Roosevelt and Truman. But they lost their dominance and vitality some 30 years ago. Then, over the last 10 years, especially under Bill Clinton during the money-culture days of the stock market bubble, the Democratic Party joined in making venality bipartisan.

This is a losing politics, because the dominance of venality automatically favors the Republicans. Innately on the side of money, many, if not most, Republicans are philosophically committed to upholding its principles and some of its excesses. By contrast, the worthy history of the Democratic Party, especially during its periods of dominance, has been to question those principles and to indict related excesses. When abuses mount and Democrats remain mute, they lose both constituency appeal and their historical raison d'etre.

Regaining this balance is not turning left, an implausible description for the great Democrats from Jefferson to Truman. What it has involved is correcting the excesses of plutophile conservatives from Alexander Hamilton through the 20th century and down to the present day. Under current circumstances, it would take years for any such correction to be leftish.

Consider just how far left serious reform would have to go to catch up with earlier Republican economics. For example, the federal inheritance tax that conservatives are trying to scuttle, principally on behalf of the 300,000 families with assets greater than $5 million, was imposed by wartime Republican presidents Lincoln and McKinley and urged for peacetime by Theodore Roosevelt. In 1953, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower declined to support GOP congressional legislation to reduce the top federal income tax rate of 91%, and on leaving office in 1961 he warned against the rise of the military-industrial complex. Contempt for the politics of money, in turn, has more recently been best expressed by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). This is how far left the Democrats have to go.

That so many of today's Democratic leaders, fearful of offending contributors and being called lefties, cannot invoke the arguments and positions of these centrist and moderate conservative Republican presidents underscores the increasing hold of the venal center over the last decade. The internal debate that the Democratic Party will need in order to break out of this trap is bound to be brutal.

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