20 January 2010

Bill Clinton Comes Begging

"The loudest and angriest voices are playing politics with our lives. And this is just the beginning..." That's the salutation on an envelope that arrived in my mailbox this morning. Bill Clinton allegedly wrote the enclosed letter back on December 28 (the time was 11:30 A.M., for the record) but its arrival coincided with post-mortems from the Massachusetts senatorial election in which a Republican took over Ted Kennedy's old seat. The former President describes an "all-out [Republican] battle to undermine President Obama and our agenda for progress," and warns, "the scary thing is, history tells us they could succeed."

Clinton explains that "midterm elections are always difficult for the party in power," noting that "over the last 32 years, the president's party has lost an average of 27 congressional seats during the midterms." He anticipates lower voter turnout, recalling that the 1994 "Contract With America" congressional elections drew only 39% of voting-age Americans nationwide, compared to a 55% turnout for his 1992 presidential election. Considering 2010 specifically, Clinton observes that "the Republican base is energized" by "ultra-conservative ideologues like Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin." While some sources have reported disappointing Republican fundraising figures for House races, Clinton states that GOP Senate fundraising is up 23% from this time two years ago.

The former President is writing for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, an altruistic gesture on his part since he now has no personal stake in any senatorial election. His is a begging letter, and he makes his case quite bluntly: "I wish I could tell you that the answer is all going to come down to who has the best ideas or who cares more about working families. But this is politics, and in politics the best ideas don't always win. You also need the best organization."

In other words, Democratic Senators don't really need to refine their arguments or acknowledge how they've botched whatever mandate President Obama won for them in 2008. They don't need to adopt any policies that would convince people that they're fulfilling their promises. As far as Clinton's concerned, "America is [already] moving forward" despite Republican obstructionism. He cites "strengthened relationships with key allies and strategic partners all around the world," "a strong economic recovery plan that's putting people back to work and making key investments for the future," the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the restructuring of the auto industry, the salvaging of "thousands" of mortgages, "tough new credit card reforms," the nomination and confirmation of Justice Sotomayor, and "serious headway in the fight for real health care reform."

How shall the Democrats consolidate these gains? Clinton proposes "three keys to victory," based on his 35 years of campaign experience, that will enable Democrats to strengthen their Senate majority. He thinks that Obama has already succeeded in strengthening the economy, so that's one down. With "strong incumbents and exciting new candidates [Martha Coakley, anyone?], Democrats have his second key, "candidates who can win." The third key, inevitably, is money.

Will we have the money we need to keep pace with corporate special interests and fight back against Republican smears and to ensure that the turnout of our voters equals or exceeds theirs? That's the question that's going to decide whether we can make history and seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

It's disturbing to have a correlation between spending and voter turnout asserted so baldly. Democrats, apparently, are a mulish bunch who have to be goaded into voting by fearmongering TV ads. And that's the most positive spin on Clinton's assertion. In the old days the correlation between spending and turnout was more obvious, because the money went straight from the donor through the party into the palm of the "undecided" voter on Election morning. I'd almost rather see that than see the money go to ad agencies and TV networks. In any event, the DSCC has a surprisingly modest fundraising goal: only $625,000 by February 12. As is common now, the pitch comes with an incentive: donate before the deadline and "a group of Democratic senators" will match your donation twice over. Where'd they get their money from, one wonders, and if they have twice the goal amount already, why am I getting this letter?

Arriving the morning after a Republican upset in a deep blue state, Clinton's begging letter is a demoralizing document because it fails to acknowledge even the possibility that Democrats themselves have done anything to put the party in its apparent present predicament, or the necessity of Democratic elected officials doing anything better to regain public support. All they need to do to win, Clinton says, is buy ads and hire more campaign workers. But this should be expected from a party that might best be described as "progressive conservative." The Democratic party sets idealistic goals and espouses noble ideals. That's enough to make them superficially progressive. But the hallmark of a conservative party or institution, regardless of ideology, is its insistence that people settle for conditions that are less than ideal or less than satisfactory. We call people conservative most of the time when they insist that we have to settle for capitalism and the inequality it requires. Democrats are conservatives because, in the apparent absence of viable radical alternatives, they insist that we settle for as much reform as they find politically expedient. Bill Clinton exemplifies this progressive-conservative or progressive-reactionary tendency. His answer to the latest challenge from the "right" is to say, in effect: give us money and don't ask questions.

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