Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

25 June 2017

How the Clintons Destroyed the Democratic Party


[For a brief note on a recent outbreak of political courage among Dems, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:
Don’t get me wrong. I voted for Bill or Hillary every time one of them won the Democratic nomination for the presidency. I even voted for Hillary last November, after losing with Bernie in the primaries.

But except for my vote for Bill the first time, in 1992, those votes were for the lesser of two evils. They were not votes of conviction, far less of joy.

Voting that way is a scared duty, itself a necessary evil. But it’s not the way to build a political party, let alone to put an errant nation back on the right track.

You have to believe in something. You have to have clear purposes, goals and aims. You have to have basic principles that distinguish your party and your tenure in office from the other party’s. You have to think you understand what makes a society strong and great and strive to create it. And you have to stick to your plan and your values, through thick and thin.

Neither Bill nor Hillary did that. Both won office—and became famous—for tacking and “triangulating.” Like sailboats in a shifting breeze, they tacked in the political winds.

Bill earned the votes and praises of so-called “conservatives” by “reforming” welfare. He made welfare harder to get and, in so doing, maybe made it more sustainable. That wasn’t all bad.

But welfare is not America’s secret. Work is. At one time, we Yanks had better, better paid, more innovative and more equal work than any society in human history.

That’s what made us strong and great, not our welfare or our safety net. Virtually every advanced society, especially those in Europe, easily beats our welfare and safety net. Try a guaranteed six months of paid paternity and maternity leave for a new child, in most of Scandinavia.

Bill never seemed to understand how what made us great was beginning to slip away. He paid little attention to our own economic bosses depriving ordinary Americans of decent, remunerative work. He ignored Ross Perot’s correct prediction that NAFTA would cause a “sucking sound” of jobs leaving for south of the Border. He never understood how the rapid decline of labor unions was putting all the leverage on the owners’ side, turning our labor force into serfs. He never conceived how Fox—the most effective propaganda organ in all of human history—was busy deluding working people and making them tools of their own bosses, voting repeatedly against their own economic interests. He just went along to get along.

Bill did understand how to win elections. He was good at that.

After a generation, two images of Bill remain his most memorable legacy. Both constitute political portraits of a sort.

The first is a group photo of Bill, as president, with former Senator Phil Gramm and others. [See also this video, setting the timer at 43:58.] Bill and the rest are smiling and laughing to celebrate the passage, and Bill’s signature, of the so-called “Financial Services Modernization Act 1999.” Among other deregulatory things, this new law repealed Glass-Steagall and allowed commercial banks to merge with or acquire investment banks and insurance companies.

To ken the photo’s and video’s significance, you have to know who Phil Gramm is. He’s an extreme ideologue with a Ph.D., a lifelong mindless cheerleader for deregulatory, bigger-is-better, no-holds-barred economics. He’s Alan Greenspan without the brains, regulatory experience or respect.

For a Democrat to be seen in Phil Gramm’s company is like Pope Francis dining with Satan. For a Democrat to push and sign Gramm’s bill was pure apostasy. Yet there Bill is, smiling and laughing with all the bosses’ lackeys as he signs the fateful bill into law.

It’s hard not to believe that Bill was much smarter than that. He’s a former Rhodes Scholar, one of our presidents with the highest level of analytical intelligence. Surely he had to know that allowing individual bosses to accumulate greater and great economic power—to build huge financial castles of sand—has never been good for either economic stability or for working people, who must pick up the pieces when the sand castles collapse.

But Bill’s forte was not building an economy for the ages. It was winning elections. And Bill was good at that. He was also a good exemplar of what we Yanks still have yet to learn: character is at least as important as intelligence in leaders. Indeed, it may be more important.

The second memorable legacy of Bill is a video that says a lot about his character. In it, he stares straight into the camera and declares, with the tone of a parent scolding a young child, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman!”

The woman in question, of course, is Monica Lewinski. As we now know, Bill got fellatio from her, maybe inside the White House.

So the veracity of his denial depended on whether fellatio constitutes “sexual relations.” That existential question led to Bill exploring “what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” With that weasel-like phrase, Bill not only demeaned the office of the President; he also made what may have been the sickest anti-lawyer joke ever.

See how character can matter?

Unfortunately, Hillary’s is not much better. She voted for war in Iraq without ever reading our intelligence services’ National Intelligence Estimate, dissents in which laid out many good reasons for not going to war. Then she supported Dubya’s folly (our greatest blunder in foreign and military policy after Vietnam) far longer than Bill and prescient critics in Congress.

Why did Hillary push war? In retrospect, the only answer that makes sense is to advance her own political career. She saw how Dubya had “Swift-boated” John Kerry, and she knew that, as a woman, she could be tarred as “weak” far more easily than Kerry, who had fought and been wounded in the War in Vietnam before coming home and protesting its senselessness. So as the de-facto leader of the Democratic Party, Hillary supported a useless, counterproductive war that has done much to destroy Syria and create the Islamic State.

Then there’s “e-mailgate.” As I have analyzed in detail before, it’s not so much a matter of national security or the law of classified material. It’s more a matter of common sense and character.

Every adult who works for someone other than himself or herself has two e-mail accounts, one for work and one for home. By combining the two just for her personal convenience, Hillary declared, in effect, that she is better than the rest of us and doesn’t have to play by the same rules. If not a defect in character, the whole scandal arose out of the tinniest ear in national politics—a breathtaking lack of common sense and perspective. Then Hillary compounded the error by refusing to show leadership and fire the aides she blamed as responsible.

The GOP and Trump made mountains of hay out of all of this. They won the presidency, because the issue was simple enough for anyone to understand. Nuances of national security and classified information had little to do with it.

Policy is harder. You can argue—as many (including Bill himself) have—that repealing Glass-Steagall was not the immediate, or even the primary, cause of the Crash of 2008.

But that’s not really the point, especially for Democrats. The extensive history of financial panics in the United States shows that ever-bigger is almost never better where financial institutions are concerned. The higher financial gurus build their castles in the sand, the harder their castles will hit the ground and ordinary workers when they fall. And there’s absolutely no denying that the 1999 bill, in allowing commercial banks to combine with investment banks and insurance companies, made the sand castles higher and tippier. That size—and the arrogance of power that comes with it—were prime motivators for making, packaging and selling the liars’ loans that were the immediate cause of the Crash of 2008. Becoming “too big to fail” is hardly a good motivator for soundness and prudence.

All this is just common sense. It’s even more common sense that Democrats—who are supposed to side with workers, not bosses who accumulate great wealth and power for their own sake—ought to oppose bigger and higher sand castles, if only on the general principle that more and more power in fewer and fewer hands is bad for democracy.

Remember FDR? Out of history’s most awful Depression and history’s most terrible war, he set the stage for the greatest and most widely shared prosperity that any human society has ever seen. How did he do it? By refusing to coddle the sand-castle builders, bosses and financiers, and by restraining them with strong, common-sense rules. As long as two parties exist in America, every progressive Yank should remember what FDR said about the bosses when they united against him: “I welcome their hatred.” [Set timer at 1:29]

Which brings me to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Bernie is the de facto leader of the Democratic party. His leadership is entirely appropriate after Hillary’s rudderless triangulation and coddling of Wall Street produced her abject but unexpected loss. Elizabeth is his best and most likely successor, waiting in the wings, and (as her literary output suggests) considering a run for the presidency in 2020.

The two leaders, Bernie and Elizabeth, are not just all the Dems have now. They are the appropriate leaders after Bill and Hillary, with their triangulation and dearth of principle and character, drove the party into the ground.

Bernie did make a couple of mistakes. Perhaps inevitably, he let himself be tarred as a “socialist.” On occasion, he came close to bashing corporations and capitalism.

Those are no-nos for every American pol, Democrat or not. Corporations bring us our air travel, appliances, cars, cell phones, computers, Internet service, modern homes, “miracle” medicine, national defense, social media, and television, among many other things. Even the least-educated Yanks knows their power for good and their more-than-usual beneficence.

So bashing corporations is just not smart, in both substance and in politics. The trick is to do what FDR did: to restrain them, tax them fairly, and keep them working for the common good and for all of us, not just their bosses. That takes finesse, subtlety and perseverance, not bashing.

But Bernie knows who constitutes the Dems’ constituency: working people and educated progressives. Despite his occasional missteps, he never lost sight of that fact.

Elizabeth is even smarter. She never falls into the trap of bashing corporations or capitalism, which is our way of life. She just bashes those who abuse capitalism by fleeing its risks and rules, by seeking bailouts, special treatment, and corporate welfare, by taking advantage of the less fortunate, by evading fair taxation, and by building empires immune from the most basic principle of capitalism—free competition. She only goes after those who stack the deck and game the system, or who cut the safety nets, that make capitalism work.

Trump sits in the White House because, however dimly, he intuitively understood this point. He promised to preserve Medicare and Social Security—two features of our social safety net most sacred to our disappearing middle class. He promised to fight for good jobs for ordinary workers, to bring manufacturing back to our shores. He promised to preserve towns that depend on a single factory and that dry up when it closes. (He has so far failed to deliver on all these promises, which makes him and the GOP more vulnerable to workers’ defection than ever before.)

Hillary had her fifteen-point plans, which few working people read or understood. Yet she also had her overpaid speeches to Wall Street, which she defended vigorously, with her tin political ear. She and Bill reportedly accumulated a family fortune of some $250 million from careers entirely in politics. Is it any wonder that working people didn’t trust her?

A recent academic study shows exactly why Trump is president. About 9% of Republicans (or 4% of the electorate) switched parties between 2012 and 2016. They voted for Obama in 2012 and for Trump in 2016.

They did so for two reasons. First and sadly, they were fed up with what they viewed as the coddling of minorities, including African-Americans, Hispanics (including undocumented immigrants) and Muslims. Second, they were economic refugees from the Democratic Party, which had saved our national economy and our auto industry under Obama but, under Hillary, seemed to promise less decisive action.

In retrospect, this study suggests that, had Bernie won the Democratic nomination, he might be in the White House today. It also screams loudly that yet another Bill- or Hillary- type triangulator will only produce another catastrophic loss.

Bill and Hillary destroyed the Dems by giving ground continually on basic Democratic principles. Is so doing they emboldened the bosses and allowed the GOP to move the goal posts ever rightward toward institutionalized bossism, what Bernie calls “stacking the deck.” Their “leadership” gave the coup de grace to FDR’s coalition and the principles of regulated capitalism, under which our markets worked like a fine Swiss watch, with little excess or overreach.

So now it’s time for the Dems to regroup. It’s time for them to rediscover their principles.

That doesn’t mean making Bernie’s “political revolution” or anything similarly scary. Americans haven’t been revolutionaries since 1776.

It means fine-tuning our capitalist system, as FDR did, by imposing stronger limits on bosses’ excesses to make the system work better and more for the common good. It means giving some power back to working people by preserving their ability to bargain collectively, by maintaining and strengthening their safety net, by making the bosses toe the line for the common good, by reducing the systemic risk undertaken by big banks, by taxing corporations and the rich fairly, and by preserving our public lands so people without country clubs can enjoy the glory that once was pristine America.

If Dems can do that, they will start to win. But first they have to change leadership.

Then they have to acknowledge and accept as allies all the people of color who have the same goals and principles, and who want to walk and drive our streets without fear of being shot. But most of all, they have to pick and stick by leaders of principle and character, as they did with Barack Obama—the man who still personifies the Democratic Party’s future in every way.

Obama didn’t win the presidency twice by uncontested popular majorities—despite being half-“black” in a still-racist nation—by waffling on principle and tacking with the political winds. He won by being who he was and is: a man of principle and character who understood exquisitely who the Dems are and must remain. When the Dems have leaders like him again, and when they endorse them wholeheartedly, they will start winning again. Not before.

Endnote: Lest readers question my conclusion that refusing to let bankers build limitless castles in the sand is just common sense, I hasten to add the tale of Byron Dorgan, former Senator from North Dakota. Before our Senate passed the 1999 deregulatory act, he took to the Senate floor and inveighed against it, but to no avail. [Set the timer at 38:30 to see his prediction that a collapse might come in ten years (it came in nine!) and at 43:58 to see his later look back at his failed attempt to prevent the collapse.] Our Democratic President Clinton, not an obscure senator from North Dakota, should have been the one to oppose the misguided bill. He should have vetoed it, not join the good ol’ boys in their deregulatory party. That’s surely what FDR would have done.

A Good Idea Catching On?

I’d like to think it might have been the influence of the foregoing post. Probably it was just the wide dawning of an idea long overdue. Maybe it was great minds thinking alike. But yesterday a bevy of Democratic leaders met on the Capitol steps for a “speak-in” to call out the GOP for its rapacious, thieving health-care bill.

Not only that, the Dems multiplied their audience by running the gathering live on Facebook. The impromptu meeting was a confluence of political courage, spontaneous and well-justified outrage, and savvy use of modern media.

The crazy thing, in my view, is how long progressives have been how timid.

Sure, keeping people insured will cost money. But don’t Dems remember how so-called “conservatives” only demagogue the deficit when talk turns to spending money on the ordinary people who make this nation work? Where were the deficit hawks when the needless War in Vietnam, the needless War in Iraq, and Trump’s unnecessary recent military increase busted the budget? Doesn’t anyone recall how Dick Cheney, that paragon of moderation and common sense (sarcasm intended), said “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter”?

The simple truth is that both parties ignore deficits when supporting programs they care about. The GOP has just been far more successful than the Dems in beating the deficit drum to protest things like health insurance for ordinary people, which they don’t want to pay for.

Among the Dems assembled yesterday on the Capitol steps were Dick Durban (D., Ill.), the progressive Senator from Illinois, Chuck Schumer (D., NY), the Senate Minority Leader, and Jeff Merkley (D. Or.), the iconic progressive from Oregon. But the leaders and instigators of the group were Cory Booker (D., N.J.) and John Lewis (D., Ga.), who started the gathering by walking over from the House, where Lewis works.

These two men have more courage than the average pol. Booker once ran into a burning building to save a woman’s life. Lewis, you may recall, was beaten close to death on the historic March for Civil Rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. It’s no accident that these two men of courage led the impromptu legislative speak-in for another civil right: the right to see a doctor when you are sick or injured.

Working people and educated progressives outnumber the bosses. They always have and always will: there will always be more Indians than chiefs.

The trick is to get the rank and file to understand their own economic interests, and their leaders to grow a spine again. When that happens, the whole nation just might wake up from the zombie-like torpor of political timidity into which the Clintons and paid political consultants have lulled the Dems for over a generation.

You can pay for caution and timidity; you can even pay by the word. But you can’t buy a backbone; you have to have one. Three cheers for Booker and Lewis, who do.

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