After wading through the oceans of ink and electrons spilled over Howard Dean’s recent spree of truth-telling about the demographics of the Republican Party, Tom DeLay’s deserved future, and the resumés of the theocon leadership, an old verity was verified: right conduct scores political points.
Among the successful immediate tests of this hoary thesis were the spankings administered to Dean by fellow Democrats John Edwards, Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, and Chris Dodd. Never mind that since Dean came to DC he has forgotten that he once opposed an “illegal and immoral war”or that he now begs money from the same corporate chieftains and fatcats he once derided when he temporarily represented a faction of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. Every once in a while, he can still call a white Christian a white Christian.
The important point is Dean got more attention for “his” party over the past week or so than Lieberman, Reid, and Hillary Clinton put together (despite the best efforts of Tim Russert). Further tests of the principles-payoff thesis are of course mostly hypothetical for leading Congressional Democrats, including those already maneuvering for 2008. But let’s wonder briefly about four of them nonetheless.
The Invasion and Occupation of Iraq
A growing majority of Americans now believe the war was or is not worth fighting. As the number of Gold Star Mothers proliferates (even as they don’t permit non-US citizens membership), the Army can’t fill its ranks, the VA cuts benefits for returning veterans, and even Tom Friedman calls for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay gulag, resolutions for immediate withdrawal ought to be the first order of business on the Hill. No dithering over “exit plans” or asking for pledges from the Bush administration that they don’t have imperial intentions in Mesopotamia (can you imagine!?). Instead, clarity and principle: troops out now. The Democratic leadership has only fear to fear: law, morality, economics, and diplomacy are also all on the side of withdrawal and aid for rebuilding. Democratic Governors and State Legislatures ought to start fighting with the Commander-in-Chief now to bring home their National Guardsmen (aka natural Democratic constituents). Sixty-two percent of the public now believes the US ought to “reduce its military presence” in the Middle East. Where are the presumptive Democratic presidential nominees in calling for removal of US bases from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Kuwait?
In a recent PIPA poll, 74% of American respondents were in favor of the “not take either side” option in the Israeli-Palestinian “conflict.” While a disappointing result to those of us who favor human rights, self-determination, and international law (overwhelmingly on the side of the Palestinians), this might be cheery news to Congressional Democrats worried about Bush’s uncritical support for Sharon and Likud. They might use this public support as cover to leverage, reduce or cut off US aid to Israel or at least to supply the Palestinian Authority with comparable resources. Instead, we get fervent pledges of undying support for the rogue state by the party’s elected leaders.
Polls consistently show large majorities in favor of a single-payer universal health care program like Medicare. Problem is that the insurance companies and pharmaceutical firms, among other beneficiaries of the status quo, oppose a rational health system. Some 31% per cent of what we spend on health care goes for “administrative costs.” We spend twice per capita what Western Europeans do. Forty-four million of us don’t even have meager HMO coverage. Fifteen hundred dollars of the price of every new GM car goes to pay for health care costs for company workers and pensioners. Are Democratic leaders so addicted to campaign contributions from short-sighted corporations and so afraid of being called “socialists” that they can’t capitalize on what could ensure them of electoral victories for decades to come?
Social Security and Private Pensions
On one of the few issues where Congressional Democrats have held fast to something resembling principle, they’re winning. Polls are running 50-60% against Bush’s privatization scheme. The longer W spends on the road with his tightly controlled audiences and pre-screened softball questions, the worse the numbers become for him and Charles Schwab. No doubt there’s still time for ambitious Dems to foolishly “compromise”with those who’d turn your hard-earned money over to Wall Street, so don’t hold your breath.
The smart Democratic political money ought to be on combining the party’s advantage on Social Security with the growing public fears about whether we all now work for United Airlines. The rest of the big, old airlines can’t wait to betray their workers and retirees, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation nears bankruptcy, and thousands of corporations chronically underfund their pensions with impunity. But rather than Democrats making the appropriate stink, instead it’s Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley and Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) expressing the greatest concern about the health of the PBGC.
Other tests for the Democrats where public opinion would be on the side of unbending and principled opposition to the Republicans: trade policy, government secrecy (70% worried about it), the environment (extraordinary contradiction between Bush policies and public preferences), budget priorities (e.g., education, renewable energy, job training, etc.), the PATRIOT Act, and dozens of other possibilities.
But actually making political hay from doing the right thing would take courage and vision. The chances that the current bunch will steadfastly, not just occasionally, display these qualities is a long shot at best.
STEVE BREYMAN directs the Ecological Economics, Values and Policy Program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.