What'd I Say?
How They Talk!
D'etat, C'est moi!
• "I AM the federal government."
-- House Majority Leader Tom Delay, when told it was against a federal law to smoke his cigar in a no-smoking area
[Washington Post, May 2003]
The old statement about clothes making the man isn't as accurate as the one which suggests that your words define who you are. Members of both parties have made recent comments that deserve examination. We'll start with the (D)rooling party:
I can’t believe the fuss Republicans have made over Whoopi Goldberg’s off-color remarks at the Kerry Fundraiser at Radio City Music Hall in July. They act like Kerry is personally responsible for every word spoken by any of his supporters. I wonder if President Bush would like to be held to the same standard. If Republicans want candidates to be responsible for remarks made by their supporters, Bush has a lot of things to explain. Maybe he would like to explain these supporters’ comments:• "I want you just to let a wave of intolerance wash over you. I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good ... We have a Biblical duty, we are called by God to conquer this country. We don't want equal time. We don't want pluralism." -- Randall Terry, founder of anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue, The News-Sentinel, Fort Wayne, Indiana, 8/16/93
Don't hold back, Randall! Tell us how you really feel - just like the rest of the wrong-wingers you hang with.
Abortions By The Anti-Abortionists
• "The long term goal [is] the execution of abortionists and parents who hire them. If we argue that abortion is murder, then we must call for the death penalty." -- Gary DeMar, Ruler of the Nations, 1987
• "[Planned Parenthood] is teaching kids to fornicate, teaching people to have adultery, every kind of bestiality, homosexuality, lesbianism - everything that the Bible condemns."
-- Pat Robertson, The 700 Club, 4/9/91
Insights On Intimacy
• "Men in the pro-choice movement are either men trapped in women's bodies ... or younger guys who are like camp followers looking for easy sex." -- Rep. Bob Dornan (R-CA)
• "Grown men should not be having sex with prostitutes unless they are married to them."
-- Jerry Falwell, on CNN's Crossfire, 5/17/97
• "We should just turn the sheriff loose and have him arrest every Muslim that crosses the state line." -- U.S. Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Valdosta Daily Times, 11/20/01
• "This is no time to be precious about locating the exact individuals directly involved in this particular terrorist attack.... We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."
-- Ann Coulter, New York Daily News, 9/12/01
• "I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off?"
-- Rush Limbaugh, commenting on the abuses in Abu Ghraib Prison, 5/4/04
• "With all due respect to those dear people, God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew."
-- Bailey Smith, Founding Father of the Christian Coalition, St. Petersburg Times, 6/26/94
• "They're not kids, they're ghetto slime."
-- Commentator Michael Savage, describing children killed by guns, 5/15/00
Kaint Spel Paytreeyot, But I Ar Won!
• "I fixed the election in Florida for George Bush." -- Former Sec. of State James Baker, as reported to Greg Palast by colleagues at BBC television, TomPaine.com, 12/8/03
• "Environmentalists are a socialist group of individuals that are the tool of the Democratic Party. I'm proud to say that they are my enemy. They are not Americans, never have been Americans, never will be Americans."
-- Rep. Don Young (R-AK), Alaska Public Radio, 08/19/96
• "That's treason, not patriotism. They ought to be run out of our country and not allowed back."
-- Tennessee State Sen. Tim Burchett (R-Knoxville), commenting about people who publicly opposed the Iraq war, Knoxville News Sentinel,, 4/28/03
Paws For The Puss, Pause For The Panderer
No one holds Bush responsible for these statements, so why are some politicians trying to make a federal case out of some remarks made at a Kerry fundraiser? When the Republicans demanded the videotape of the fundraiser where the offensive remarks were made, the Kerry Campaign’s response was perfect.• "[W]e find your outrage over and paparazzi-like obsession with a fund-raising event to be misplaced ... We will not consider your request until the Bush campaign and White House make public the documents/materials listed ... the President's military records ... correspondence between the Defense Department and the White House regarding the no-bid contracts that have gone to Halliburton…documents detailing ‘what lobbyists and special interests wrote the White House energy policy’ ... correspondence between the pharmaceutical industry and the Administration regarding the Medicare Bill…documents ‘regarding the White House's involvement in laying the legal foundation for the interrogation methods that were used in Iraq.’" -- from a letter from Kerry Campaign Manager Mary Beth Cahill, quoted by CNSNews.com Morning Editor, 7/14/04
Evidently, the Republicans believe that investigating potty-talk at Democratic fundraisers is their top priority in the War Against Terror. Don’t be surprised if one of them proposes a Constitutional amendment to ban swearing, or at least confine it to the Senate floor, where it belongs. Which do you think is more important—what Whoopi Goldberg says, or how our government is being run?
Certainly how our government is being run! But one does have to ask similar questions about the other party which offers itself as the substitute: Are you willing to walk your talk - or is it just talk?
Righteous populism holds the key to vanquishing Bush forever
In the last few decades we've seen a structural shift as tectonic in its way as the sectional crisis that preceded the Civil War. In the 30 years or so following World War II, a period of Democratic dominance, the real income of the average American literally doubled — meaning that rural families who once kept outhouses on their property were now able to keep a garage.
In the 30 years that followed that same average income stagnated, the amount of individual debt exceeding that of individual savings. It happened coincident with a slow and steady rise in Republican dominance, now nearly complete. As corporations were awarded more and more prerogatives, it's gotten worse. From 2000 to 2002, according to the IRS, the average American income dropped 9.2 percent — and the last time incomes fell in this way for even one year was 1953.
A visionary party of opposition — you might even say a competent party of opposition — would place fixing inequality and stagnating incomes at the center of its political appeal. For all the talk of swing voters, of NASCAR dads and soccer moms, this is the way to beat George Bush — and to recover the Democrats' former status as the ruling party in American politics. An insistent, consistent, commitment to populism would make for a stellar electoral strategy for beating George Bush, and, four or eight years from now, for beating George Bush's brother, or any Republican.
Instead, the party invites within its folds securities lobbyists who want to repeal the corporate tax.
At the palatial Wang Theatre downtown, I sipped cocktails with Patty, a securities industries lobbyist who claims to be a Democrat. I asked her about a plank in the platform: "Under John Kerry and John Edwards, 99 percent of American businesses will pay lower taxes." Since 60 percent of American corporations already pay no taxes, I asked, does that mean they'll get free money shoveled back to them from the treasury? [This has actually happened before! Look up the alternative minimum tax for example - ed] She responded by questioning the premise. "I was an econ major in college, so I don't think it's an efficient tax. I think there are better ways to raise revenue."
The Democrats are the party of ideological whiplash. At the Boston Social Forum, a left-wing hootenanny before the national convention, you could find enthusiastic John Kerry voters attending a "hemposium" and hawking "Holy Land Olive Oil" (slogan: Support Palestinian Farmers). How do the decisions get made that produce this state of affairs? How, in this party of the people, do the corporations become the mainstream and the liberals become the insurgents?
In Boston, I hoped to find some clues. When Mary Rasmussen started getting involved in Democratic politics, her goal was to join the DNC, ostensibly the party's policy-making body — "to be a participant in formulating party goals, party objectives, party strategies," she recalls. "It didn't take long to discover that being there is just part of the window dressing." Her wake-up call came at the first meeting, at the Michigan resort town of Mackinac Island. She asked a party executive if his kids wanted to join hers to play in the swimming pool. "Well, the look on his face! It was so shriveling: that it was entirely inappropriate. Because, like, he's the executive director of the DNC! And I was just a DNC member!" She says it with bemusement, not bitterness; she's long past holding on to her illusions.
Mary and I run together throughout convention week. Most times she is jovial. Now, she is cutting. "I'm tired of it. I'm tired of being treated by corporate white guys as if my issues are amusing."
Something About Mary
Mary Rasmussen is the kind of delegate to the Democratic convention who keeps returning to the free T-shirt booth to sign up for a credit card, because she wants to give away shirts to each of the maids back at her hotel. A reading teacher and for 10 years a member of the Democratic National Committee — she calls herself the most "populist" of Wisconsin's four members — she is so emotionally committed to the Democratic party that back when she was an alcoholic, her friends arranged for her intervention to be the day after the 1988 presidential election. "They all knew it was going to be awful, and they knew that I would be hung over and depressed and suicidal." The intervention worked. "So every time there's a presidential election, God willing and the creek don't rise, I can celebrate another four years of sobriety."
Mary is also the kind of loyal soldier some in the Democratic establishment seem to relish stepping on. In 2000 she received a call at school from Terry McAuliffe, the master fundraiser and Clinton operative who was running unopposed for DNC chairman. He wanted to make sure he had her support. "I was less than forthcoming," recalls Mary, "and asked him some question about why I should vote for him. I needed more than that he was a great fundraiser. I needed to know what his vision was. And he couldn't tell me." She told him that her formative moment in politics had come at a time where visionary politics were of utmost importance. "And he laughed! He said, 'Oh, I have an older brother like that.' He was very dismissive. Like, 'Oh, that is so cute.' "
She wanted more populism. "I envisioned that we would all get together and dialogue," she says, with a laugh — this was, after all, the Age of Clinton, whose White House was bursting over with the intellectual energy of a college seminar room. And it wasn't just her idealism speaking.
She saw more and more corporations. "But instead, we go, and they give us talking points — and send us out to say those things. We get together to rubber stamp decisions that have been made somewhere else," she says, before correcting herself: "No, not just rubber stamp: We get together to cheer and celebrate those decisions." What were the decisions?
'The Last Liberal'
We have just repaired from a breakfast meeting of the Wisconsin delegation where John Nichols, the editorial page editor of the Madison, Wisconsin, Capital Times, told me how frustrated it made a lot of insiders to see Mary — "the last liberal" — accede to the DNC. One of the speakers was Al Franken. Another was an environmentalist who talked about what a bonanza he's yielded organizing voters in four swing states against mercury poisoning in lakes and rivers: Potential voters can't hear enough about this issue.
A third speaker was an executive from the sponsor of the Wisconsin delegation's sumptuous breakfast, a company called Xcel Energy. On the elevator, I asked the executive whether there might be at least the appearance of impropriety in a company with business before the government sponsoring one of the government's constituent parties. His shrug suggests a question so odd he had never given it a thought. "It's just a way of giving back to our customers," he finally says. As a premium, they gave out fancy water bottles, the kind that retail at camping stores for $10, with their logo on it. Except that these underwriters of Democrats, forgot to remove the sticker at the bottom of each one: Made in China.
If you Google "Xcel Energy" and "mercury poisoning," the impropriety becomes less abstract: "In a report titled Toxic Neighbors, a group called Clear the Air said Minnesota's coal-fired power plants dumped 2,300 pounds of mercury into the environment in 2001. More than a third of that, 840 pounds, came from a single plant, Xcel Energy's 1,947-megawatt Sherco facility . . . "
Some scenes from Boston
Blue-suited thirtysomethings with $100 haircuts stomping around in hotel lobbies, telling the cell phones sprouting from their ears, "I'll keep my ear to the ground." On acceptance-speech night, Alexandra Kerry telling the story about the family's pet hamster, a reporter next to me making a Richard Gere joke; there follow backslaps all around. Talking heads flap their mouths: about whether and how the Clintons will "overshadow" the nominee; about how (in the absurd, astonishing words of New Republic editor Peter Beinart) "liberalism is on tap virtually every night," stuffing up an activist-run party's "self-congratulatory echo chamber." About how many sentences of his speech John Kerry wrote himself.
This is the audience the convention planners seem to play to. They respond predictably to words like "safer" and "first responder" and "daughter"; a keyword search reveals the phrases showing up 30, eight, and 23 times. Not so much to words having to do with official government malfeasance — which is why, strangely, John Kerry's single greatest achievement as senator, forcing Congress to face up to the Reagan administration's crimes negotiating with Iranian hostage-takers and sending the proceeds to death squads in Central America, was not mentioned at all.
No, this convention was supposed to make us feel good, be relentlessly positive. The theme was unity: national unity, party unity.
Niceness is nice. It makes a body feel good about himself. But it's no strategy with which to win a presidential election. Adlai Stevenson was nice; he lost two presidential elections for the Democrats. Michael Dukakis, Jimmy Carter: They were nice. And look what happened to them.
These days, talking about things like the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us is judged not very nice. Recently the Democratic consultant Stanley Greenberg published findings that, asked to chose from a list of issues they considered serious, only 30 percent of Americans picked "high taxes" as a problem (77 percent chose health care). "High taxes" are not only the Republicans' signature issue, but a "problem" that Kerry has placed at the center of his campaign as well, promising a tax cut to everyone who makes less than $200,000 a year.
Greenberg also found that a large majority of Americans want government to fight income inequality. When he asked focus groups what they thought about "big corporations," he wrote, "They spit out, 'money,' 'greed,' and 'Enron' " — a "revulsion formerly reserved for Hollywood." And this from a predominantly Republican crowd.
The Secret Weapon
The pollster Celinda Lake gave a stunning presentation one afternoon in Boston — though it wasn't the sort of thing the pundits would tend to notice. She provided a statistical portrait of America's 22 million single American women, who are alienated enough to be hugely underrepresented on the voting rolls: If single women voted at the same rate as married ones, there would have been 6 million more voters in 2000 — 200,000 in Florida alone.
Why are they alienated? One reason might be how liberal they are. On every single issue, these voters lean left, especially on economics. Eighty-eight percent worry their incomes might not keep up with rising prices (only 68 percent worry about being the victim of a crime); they are sufficiently environmentalist that only 12 percent are "cool" toward environmental groups.
The Democrats, if they stopped talking corporate and spoke to these people's issues, would have won that election, and just about every other one besides.
The speaker after Lake was a young woman who organizes voters from poor rural backgrounds like her own. She drawled out a story about the time she asked a friend out for a beer, who said she couldn't drink because she's still nursing her young toddler.
"Well, how long are you gonna do that?"
"Until it runs out. Because it's free."
Me, when I heard that, I thought of mercury poisoning. Mercury gets into breast milk.
My kind of thinking is not about giving conveners of hemposiums more voice in the Democratic party. That's the kind of ostentation that just turns voters off. But tamping down corporations like Xcel, ostentatiously enough so that alienated nonvoters start taking notice, instead of letting them use our party as a branding opportunity — that would only be practical. (Another thing Greenberg found is that voters think both parties are dominated by corporations.)
It is the kind of dare that could turn the Democrats into America's ruling party again.
Fixing it might require breaking some eggs. The pundits would call it "class warfare." So whenever a concession is demanded in the interests of unity, it will be demanded of the party's left wing, never of the corporate types. Like the time, Tuesday night, one party liberal — this one — returned to find his seat occupied by one of those blue-suited thirtysomethings. I asked him to give it up. He refused. "We gave lots of money to the Democratic Party," he said, and demanded I sit in the aisle. "It would be shameful if I couldn't get a seat."
It was on behalf of all those poor single women who don't vote and who really hold the explosive power for beating George Bush on November 2, 2004, that I refused to give up my seat.
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