By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Monday 19 May 2003
A cavernous conference room within the Colonnade Hotel in Boston became the center of gravity for the Massachusetts liberal/progressive community on the evening of May 17. An organization called Citizens for Participation in Political Action, or CPPAX, held its annual dinner that night to honor Massachusetts state Representative Byron Rushing, 2002 gubernatorial candidate Warren Tolman, and long-time political activist Doris "Granny D" Haddock. The keynote speaker for the event was Representative Barney Frank. Along with the feting of these men and women, CPPAX used the occasion to announce the launching of its "Swing State" program, which will focus on winning the 2004 Presidential election. CPPAX was founded in 1962 to promote citizen grassroots political action in Massachusetts. The Left being what it is, one would expect this gathering to have been a showcase for special-interest squabbling. A liberal with an agenda who thinks their issue is more important than any other is axiomatic at this point. Liberal DNA appears to come pre-programmed with an island-unto-oneself gene sequence; the sight of two progressives who agree on 95% of the issues screaming furiously at each other has been all too common an occurrence of late.
The scene at the Colonnade on May 17 was different, however. Speaker after speaker – from Frank to Tolman to Rushing to the CPPAX organizers – basically ordered the crowd to set aside internecine wrangling and focus on the main tent: helping the Democratic nominee, whomever it might be, beat George W. Bush in 2004.
Consider the momentousness of this. Barney Frank is and has always been one of the most liberal members of the House of Representatives. Byron Rushing got his start as a CORE organizer in Syracuse, and has spent his entire public career advocating for the most progressive causes. Warren Tolman ran for governor of Massachusetts as the 'Clean Elections' candidate, a campaign finance reform referendum that was overwhelmingly supported by Massachusetts voters but constantly de-funded by timorous State House lifers.
Within these men lives the entire galaxy of liberal issues and causes – civil liberties, health care, housing, clean elections, media bias, abortion rights, foreign policy, the death penalty – and yet not one of them attempted to push their pet cause as preeminent. They placed everything within one overriding context: None of the causes advocated by progressives will see the light of day if Bush manages to secure a second term. Barney Frank went so far as to promise that Roe v. Wade would cease to exist in a second Bush term, as several Supreme Court Justices near their retirement and the conservatives control the nomination process. The crowd didn't like it. Question after question from the audience pointed to the 2000 election, and to the fact that the Democrats voted for the Iraq war and the Patriot Act. On all these key issues, the Democrats essentially gave Bush whatever he wanted. Frank, who received the brunt of the questioning, agreed wholeheartedly that this was troubling and disheartening.
But, he said, understand the fundamental differences between the parties on so many other issues. The GOP and the Democrats could not be more different when it comes to health care, tax policy, abortion rights and economics issues. The War on Terror and all the attending problems brought by the administration are crucial, to be sure, but when it comes to the bread-and-butter issues that truly matter to the Great Middle, the worst Democrat in the field is better by orders of magnitude than Bush.
There is a great deal of logic to this argument. Consider the case of Joe Lieberman, arguably the worst of the Presidential candidates from the progressive perspective. Lieberman was an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq war and the Patriot Act, and has worked hard to cast himself as an ideological match to Bush on foreign policy and terrorism issues. Yet Lieberman also enjoys remarkably high ratings from the issues groups that advocate for a variety of progressive causes; Americans for Democratic Action gave him a 95 rating out of a possible 100 on virtually every liberal issue in 1999.
Along with that ADA rating, there are ten other reasons why President Lieberman, warts and all, is profoundly preferable to President Bush: Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Rickard Perle, John Poindexter, Lewis Libby, Andrew Card, Robert Zoellick and Mitch Daniels. Not one of these people will be within 1,000 miles of power in a Lieberman administration. The liberal/progressive community should clearly see this as a great leap forward.
It seems the Democratic candidates themselves have been hipped to the scheme. On the same day as the CPPAX gathering, seven of the nine candidates for the 2004 nomination came together at a town meeting in Iowa and set about kicking George W. Bush around the room. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, who were committed elsewhere, delivered recorded statements. The attending candidates avoided the scene that played out at a recent debate in South Carolina and steadfastly avoided bashing each other.
Dick Gephardt: "Bush has left America vulnerable to future attacks because this administration has not done its job and has not increased our ability to have homeland security."
John Edwards: "The Republicans and George Bush, they honor wealth. We honor the work that produces wealth."
Howard Dean: "Everybody is glad to see Saddam gone. But the truth is it is a diversion. We are not safer today than we were before Saddam Hussein left."
Bob Graham: "What this administration has done is they have conducted an ideological war in Iraq, where they have not found the weapons of mass destruction upon which it was predicated, and at the same time they have stopped the war against terror. We have let Al Qaeda off the hook."
Dennis Kucinich: "It's time we have someone in the White House who understands working people."
Al Sharpton: "Mr. Bush, the question you have not answered is, 'Where is bin Laden?'"
Carol Moseley Braun: "The tax cuts were absolutely a travesty and ought to be rolled back."
The most dramatic moment of the gathering came when a New York City fire department EMT who had responded to the Twin Towers attack on September 11 accused Bush of failing to fund necessary Homeland Security measures. The seven candidates, and the thousand people who attended, rose simultaneously and spontaneously to give him a standing ovation.
Gephardt responded by stating that the rescue workers who charged into the Towers "were union members, and they were heroes. When it came to passing a homeland-security bill, this administration insisted on a bill that would take away the rights to organize." John Edwards assented, saying "We should not cede this issue to a president and a party whose idea of homeland security is plastic wrap and duct tape."
Progressives in America have been waiting a long time to hear such comments from Democrats. Now, those comments are coming, and more will be on the way. There is a great unspoken concern that the problems we face because of the Bush administration may be beyond a political solution. The blowback from the Iraq war – bombs in Riyadh, bombs in Casablanca – underscore the fact that Bush's people have completely dropped the ball. One explosion in America will herald the undoing of our constitutional rule of law, and all thanks to a combination of inept governance, political cowardice from the opposition, and craven greed on the part of the ruling power brokers. Before a non-political alternative becomes required, before that potential mess becomes a stark reality, political and electoral solutions are imperative. One of the Democrats that spoke in Iowa is that solution, whether we like it or not.
It was my signal honor at the CPPAX dinner to introduce Doris Haddock for her award. As the 93 year old activist walked slowly and carefully to the podium to deliver her remarks, I reflected on what she has done in her time. To promote the cause of campaign finance reform, 'Granny D' had walked – at age 90 – 3,200 hundred miles from Santa Monica Beach to Washington DC. She crossed hundreds of miles of desert, and finished the trek on skis through the worst winter the Eastern seaboard had seen in 50 years.
Granny D spoke for five minutes to promote the CPPAX "Swing State" program, and her diminutive yet regal bearing broadcast an imperative to all attending. Time is short. Another Bush administration term in 2004 will be, simply, devastating. All the issues in the world cannot overcome the simple truth that a change must be made. The worst candidate is better than the best Bush. More than anything, I want Doris to live long enough to see that change happen before her wise eyes.
It can be done, but only if all the horses run together at speed. Make it happen for Granny D, for yourselves, for the world. Come together to win this battle in the short term, and the opportunity to see liberal causes put to work will follow on the heels of that victory. The alternative is utterly untenable.