Democrats Could Try Telling the Truth

November 12, 2002

Mark Weisbrot
Chicago Tribune, November 12, 2002

Virgin Islands Daily News – November 9, 2002
The Hour –
November 11, 2002
Bangkok Post
– November 12, 2002
St. Thomas Daily News –
November 16, 2002
News Gazette –
November 17, 2002

The Democrats’ loss in both houses of Congress has prompted more than the usual debate over what went wrong. It seems clear that the most fundamental strategic error made by the Democrats was to allow President Bush to displace their issues by making Iraq dominate media coverage of the election season.

It is important not to bury this lesson, as the history of this election is already being rewritten.  Trent Lott, Senate Republican leader, claims a mandate for the President: “The American people said, ‘Yes, we trust this man’,” he said. And Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, whose surrender to President Bush helped seal his party’s fate, concurred, saying that the elections have given the President “an opportunity here to enact and proceed with the plan (on Iraq) as he has articulated it.”

But 80 percent of the electorate did not vote for Republican candidates. So it takes quite an imagination to see this election as a mandate for anything except fixing our broken-down democracy.

Back in August, things were moving in the Democrats’ direction. Due to massive fraud and corporate crime, millions of older employees had lost their savings and began postponing their retirement. By a lopsided margin of 55 to 25 percent, the public said that President Bush cared more about the interests of large corporations than about ordinary working people. Democrats led Republicans on the economy, the budget, Social Security, and almost all of the biggest election issues except “national security and terrorism.”

Then George W. Bush discovered Iraq.

The Democrats could have said, why now? How did Saddam Hussein suddenly become a national security threat just 8 weeks before the election? Or more politely, they could have told President Bush to bring this up after the election, as his father did with the first Gulf War.

But they caved instead. What is most amazing about this surrender is that it is not, as in so many other cases, a result of the corruption of our politics by campaign contributions. There was no clamor from Wall Street or the Chamber of Commerce for attacking Iraq. There may be oil and gas companies that stand to profit from this war, but they give most of their political contributions to Republicans.

Of course corruption is still part of the story here. Democrats could have pursued a whole set of scandals that might topple the Bush administration.  The Democratic leadership has apparently decided to tread carefully in the area of corporate malfeasance for fear that some of their own luminaries might wind up on the wrong side of an investigation. Clinton’s former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin, for example, might have to explain some phone calls he made to Treasury last year, asking whether they were going to intervene to protect Enron’s bond ratings.

But the Democrats’ betrayal on the war is a different story. It is the latest, and the most morally repugnant, of a series of crucial political decisions in which telling the truth would have been a much better strategy even from the standpoint of their
own self-interest. When President Bush proposed his massive tax cut, with 40 percent of it going to the richest 1 percent of the country (average income: $1.1 million), they could have opposed it on the grounds of fairness. Instead they chose to complain about its effects on the federal budget deficit. They posed as the party of fiscal conservatism, making up all kinds of gross exaggerations about the effect of tax cuts on the deficit and the economy.

Thus voters are increasingly left with a choice between a party whose principles favor the rich and powerful, and another that has almost no principles at all. It is no wonder that most do not bother to show up at the polls.

Fixing this problem will require a major overhaul, including real campaign finance reform that puts an end to the legalized bribery of our elected officials. But in the mean time, the Democrats might want to consider a novel strategy: tell the truth once in a while, at least when it’s in your favor. You can hardly do worse than you have done with your poll-driven, don’t-challenge-a-president-with-high-approval-ratings, gutless capitulation.

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