Stanley Aronowitz, "Giving Kerry a Free Ride"

"Giving Kerry a Free Ride:

The Left and the 2004 Election"

Stanley Aronowitz, Portside

There is an old saw of political forecasting: "it's the
economy, stupid". Bill Clinton popularized it in his
campaign to unseat George H.W Bush and it seemed to
work, despite Bush's swift and apparently painless
victory in the Gulf War (in retrospect it was not
nearly as smooth as was initially reported). According
to most assessments, the senior Bush was defeated by
his failure to address the 1991-93 recession with bold
interventions that appeared to recognize the issue, let
alone make a real difference.

A decade later the
incumbent national administration led by senior Bush's
son, George, is presiding over a stubbornly flagging
economy. More particularly, if many Americans are
experiencing declining living standards — whether they
have a full-time job or not —, according to
conventional wisdom the prospects for returning the
president to a second term are said to be grim. If the
perceive that the government is indifferent to their
plight, they surely will not support another four years
of pain and suffering.

Upon taking office the second
Bush administration was confronted with a largely
inherited incipient recession. True to the neo-
liberal, supply-side tradition its chief strategy was
to take trickle down measures to stimulate private
investment. At the same time, after September 11, 2001
military spending soared, largely on the basis of
borrowed money, even as the economy stagnated.
Despite enacting two huge tax cuts, mostly for the very
wealthy, and reducing the prime interest rate to almost
the vanishing point — 1% — George W. Bush's first term
has been marked by job losses due to falling industrial
production amid technological displacement, income
stagnation and overproduction.The Bush strategy mostly backfired: many corporations
and venture capitalists took advantage of the tax
bonanza by investing in job destroying technological
innovations and in offshore industrial and knowledge
production. During its first three years in office, the
US economy lost almost three million jobs, most of them
in manufacturing, but also in managerial, professional
and technical categories. After the impact of
technology, and the black cloud of simple
overproduction of goods and services the most important
reason for the losses was offshore outsourcing. Many
jobs in goods and knowledge production have migrated
overseas to Latin America and East Asia where wages are
a fifth or a tenth of those in the United States.
During the outsourcing crisis, professional and
technical workers as well as industrial workers became
aware that in the new global economic environment
nothing is pinned down. In the end, what Americans had
been taught never to fear, that so-called third world
countries could acquire the capacity to produce highly
skilled, well trained knowledge and service workers,
came to pass.

The airline industry is experiencing a meltdown of
unprecedented proportions: all of the majors are in a
profits crisis; two of America's six largest carriers,
US Air and United, have filed for bankruptcy protection;
Delta recently announced it would cut 10% of its labor
force over the next few years and is poised to file for
bankruptcy as well; and nearly all major airline
corporations have demanded pay and benefits cuts from
their workers. US Air and United have gone so far as to
suggest that their obligation to provide employees with
contractually-negotiated benefits packages be
eliminated or the costs be substantially shifted to

Make no mistake,: this is no fiscally conservative
government. Indeed, the Bush administration has proven
to be one of the biggest spenders of the post-World War
Two era. In a matter of two years its military
keynesian policies obliterated the carefully crafted
Clinton trillion dollar surpluses, adding more than a
trillion dollars in debt. And when, as the 2004
election approached, Bush rediscovered some social
programs, together with the Republican-controlled
Congress and some leading Democrats like Ted Kennedy,
his administration sponsored a Medicare reform that
rewards the drug companies with a gift of super profits
and for millions of medicare recipients very little in
the way of reduced prescription drug costs.

But, even if Bush thought he could elide responsibility
for economic woes by focusing on the war on terror, the
wars are going badly. Almost ignored by the media,
Afghanistan is no peaceful pasture but almost three
years after the US invasion, it remains turbulent and
insecure, for its own population as well as the sharply
thinned-out American military. Slowly the Taliban
which, after all, were the target of the American
occupation, have recouped and asserted their power to
disrupt and otherwise unsettle the country. And,
instead of being able to smoke Osama Bin Laden from his
hole, the Bush administration finds itself unexpectedly
bogged down in Iraq. Seventeen months after president
Bush stood on an aircraft carrier and proclaimed the
end of the military phase of the Iraq war, the war's
pace and intensity have increased and American soldiers
as well as Iraqis are suffering the consequences. Since
May 2003 a full fledged insurgency has emerged among
both the Shia and Suni, and they have successfully
prevented US forces from entering some key regions of
the country. In early September the US military
announced that it had sustained more than 1000 deaths
and nearly five thousand wounded, figures that remain
in dispute. Unofficial estimates of Iraqi deaths range
from 37,000 to more than 50,000, with many more maimed
and wounded. According to official sources significant
portions of Iraq are under insurgent control, which has
prompted the US military high command to announce, on
September 18, a late autumn offensive to drive the
insurgents from their strongholds so that elections,
planned for January 2005, can go forward, a plan that
has been received with considerable skepticism.

The combination of economic distress at home and
seemingly endless wars which, according to many
mainstream observers, are the result of poor planning
by an administration that, notwithstanding its
possession of technological superiority in weapons of
destruction, seems unable to win the "peace", should
have inspired the Democratic Party. Certainly, under
pressure from its still potent liberal wing, — notably
Howard Dean's early challenge to the center-right neo-
liberal establishment — the Spring primaries
temporarily emboldened most of those who aspired to the
presidential nomination to roundly condemn the Bush
administration on both the war and economic fronts. By
the DP convention at the end of July, terrified at the
prospect of a Bush victory, Democratic Party activists
and its erstwhile left critics ignored John Kerry's
heavy baggage, notably his support of the enabling war
resolution, and were united in the belief that they
had victory within their grasp. Thousands of
intellectuals and activists who had supported Ralph
Nader in the ill-fated 2000 presidential elections
declared that this time the important thing was to
defeat Bush, to turn his ultra-right inner circle —
notably Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft and Donald
Rumsfeld — out of office and Kerry was the best hope..

Yet, until the presidential debates which revealed Bush
as a a twitching, mean-spirited and largely inflexible
ideologue Kerry's campaign had failed to catch fire.
Even after his surge in the polls, Kerry stays close to
the pro-war script. For example, even as he assails the
administration?s handling of the peace, especially its
unilateralism and many failures to assuage the Iraqi
people from hating America and Americans, his position
on the Iraq war remains ambiguously favorable to the
Bush policy. After intensifying his attack on Bush's
Iraq policies for their recklessness, he pledged to
withdraw US troops from Iraq in four years without
detailing what he would do during this period, except
train Iraqis to deal with their own security, advance
reconstruction efforts, and hold elections, all of
which are in the Bush playbook. Kerry has called
attention to the fact that the administration's
declarations of a recovery after 2002 have, at best,
produced low-wage jobs, and then not enough of them.
But like his opponent, he has offered a supply-side
solution to the jobless recovery: reward corporations
who create new jobs instead of outsourcing with
substantial tax credits. Consistent with his neo-
liberal premises which focus on what has proven to be
ephemeral private sector job creation, fearing charges
that he is, after all, a tax and spend liberal, he has
refused to suggest that the government could create
millions of public service jobs to expand education,
health care, public transportation, environmental
protection, day care and recreation. He has refrained
from attacking one of the administration's most
egregious civil liberties disasters, The Patriot Act,
for which he voted, which gives the Attorney General
almost unlimited powers to detain suspected
"terrorists", US citizens or not, engage in widespread
surveillance, especially of opponents, and suspend
constitutional protections on security grounds. Even as
the Bush campaign calls attention to its socially
conservative agenda of abrogating abortion rights and
promotes an anti-gay marriage-amendment to the
constitution, Kerry remains strangely silent except to
affirm that he, too, is opposed to gay marriage.

Believing, with some justice, it has the liberals and
the left in his pocket, the Kerry campaign has decided
to direct much of its appeal to voters in the so-called
battleground states (Ohio, Missouri, Colorado, Florida,
New Mexico Wisconsin, Michigan and New Hampshire), but
even more specifically it is contesting allegedly swing
voters who it believes are more moderate than the
Democrats'core constituency. Moderate on what?
Economic policy? Do swing voters want to reward the
very same corporations who are responsible for
outsourcing? Health care? (in a recent survey 78% of
the American public is in favor of a government-
sponsored "guarantee" of health care). Is Kerry silent
on social issues because he is courting social

Some on Kerry's left flank have suggested that the way
out of the conundrum is to dramatically expand the
electorate from its current 50-55% of eligible votes,
most of whom are, in income and class terms, in the
upper half of the population and are over 35 years of
age. They advise the DP and the Kerry campaign to
register and bring to the polls the vast legions of the
disenfranchised working poor, the unemployed, youth and
women. While there is some evidence that in states like
Florida, the Democrats are working to swell the
participation of blacks, and may go after the youth
vote in several other states, this campaign resembles
tweedlydum to Bush's tweedlydee more than a crusade.

In order to mobilize and expand the disaffected Kerry

--- go beyond his late September declaration that if he
knew what he knows now — that Iraq did not possess
weapons of mass destruction —, he would not have voted
for the war resolution. (Of course this is a reversal of
his earlier position that he still would have cast a
yes vote).

--- declare that the job crisis can be solved chiefly
by policies of job creation because he understands
that in more than thirty years the private sector has
not delivered many jobs outside of the military and the
short-lived boom.

--- offer a serious solution to outsourcing: tie
international trade to raising living standards in
developing countries and prohibiting corporations to
export jobs in order to avoid wage and benefits
protections currently enjoyed by US workers.

--- speak out against the announcement by some airline
companies that they intend to abrogate pension and
health care benefits negotiated through the union
contract. And attack Bush's plan to cut housing

--- support the reinstatement of guaranteed
income(rescinded by the 1996 Welfare Reform) for those
who have few or no alternatives. And support a dramatic
increase in the minimum wage to European levels of
about $9 an hour (in the last debate he came out for a
$7 minimum).

--- state, flatly, that he favors a program of
universal health care, some of which would be financed
by the Federal government through the social security
system by or general revenues, as in other advanced
capitalist countries.

But with less than three weeks left in the campaign
Kerry has shown no signs of heeding this advice.
Instead, Kerry has stayed close to the Clinton formula
of presenting himself as a fiscal conservative and
cautious supporter of private initiative. One reason
for this strategic choice must be that the party
establishment, of which Kerry is an integral part, does
not intend to offer redistributive, anti-corporate
programs to address America?s festering economic and
social problems. In line with the drumbeat of the
center/right Democratic Leadership Council, Kerry]s
strategy is to convince conservatives that he, not
Bush, is their candidate. After all, in line with the
Cold War policy he has come down solidly in favor of
placing warmaking on the traditional Western alliance
With his message of fiscal responsibility and bi-
partisan multilateralism Kerry has argued that Bush is,
in many ways, out of the mainstream of public opinion.
But now voters are looking for concrete plans for
America's future, plans that Kerry simply has not
offered. As a result his once commanding lead in most
battleground states has disappeared and he is even
losing some ground in some of his own "blue" territory.

Is it simply that the party establishment would rather
lose and hold on the machinery than win by making
promises that would transform the existing corporate
domination of national politics and government policy?
Is the prospect of a class-based campaign — the only
condition under which Kerry could hope to attract new
constituents — so repugnant to his handlers and to the
candidate himself that they are willing to grasp defeat
from the jaws of victory? These are rational
explanations for the foot-dragging that has marked
Kerry's performance since August 1. But I want to
suggest that this explanation tells only part of the

In 1986 I published a cover story in The Progressive
titled "The Party's Over". Then I argued that since
1976 when the Democrats elected its first neo-liberal
president, Jimmy Carter, the party had transformed
itself into a socially liberal, politically centrist
and economically conservative organization. While
retaining the organizational support of trade unions,
feminist organizations, civil rights and a considerable
fraction of urban intellectuals and members of the
professional/managerial strata, the party had
effectively shed its welfare state legacy, its
commitment to labor, especially the working poor, and
abandoned the cities to the banks and real estate
interests. In short, the judgement that the Democratic
party retained its earlier commitment to some
redistributive polices was mistaken, and the support
awarded to its candidates at the national level by
organized labor and social movements was ill-deserved.

In the subsequent eighteen years the old Roosevelt
coalition has hung together, sort of. The 1980s was an
era of the so-called "Reagan" Democrats; the DP
retained control over the two houses of Congress but
lost three successive presidential elections, largely
because a considerable chunk of its traditional working
class base defected and the vaunted weight of the
unions to deliver overwhelming majorities in the cities
was undercut by rampant suburbanization, and
deindustrialization. Women stayed the course, a mark of
their loyalty to Roe v Wade and the Democrats?
reluctant but reliable support, and blacks and Latinos
were still attached to the party for its willingness to
scuttle its historic Southern powerhouse when president
Johnson signed the Voting and Civil Rights Acts in 1964
and 1965. As it turned out Barry Goldwater's crushing
1964 defeat was the beginning, as Kevin Phillips
argued, of the emergence of a new conservative
Republican majority.

In the wake of the dramatic shift in the political
temper of the country the Democrats, believing that if
they clung to the "old ideas" they would certainly be
consigned to a permanent minority, rather swiftly
became the less odious neo-liberal wing of the new
arrangements. Bill Clinton who learned his lesson when,
after one term, he was defeated for reelection in the
1980 Arkansas gubernatorial race, climbed off the floor
became a born-again centrist, and went on to win five
terms of office, beginning in 1982. In 1988 he
organized the Democratic Leadership Council which
brought his centrist, neo-liberal politics on to the
national stage. Indeed, his 1992 presidential race was
conducted, almost entirely, on the fears of a broad
swath of the electorate that the arch-reactionary
George H.W. Bush would bring America down. Given
general perception that the Bush presidency was both
insensitive to the economic recession and objectionable
in many other respects, Clinton got away with saying
very little except to promise that his administration
would deliver universal health care, the struggle for
which, in 1993, turned out to be an unmitigated
disaster mainly because it perpetuated the myth that
the private sector could do it better. Even so, the big
drug companies never saw a capitulation it would not
trample. The Clintons mishandled the legislative and
public relations effort because they were unwilling to
fight the drug companies who mounted a huge campaign
against their plan. The health care fiasco brought the
Democrats down in both houses in 1994.

Once more, Clinton learned to incorporate conservative
fiscal policy into his program; like FDR he became the
most fervent salesperson for the doctrine of the
balanced budget and may have been the best conservative
president of the 20th century. Against a surprisingly
strong campaign by Organized Labor to sink the treaty
in 1993 he signed NAFTA which, in retrospect was the
first major official recognition that the American
government supported outsourcing to developing
countries, even if it has resulted in the loss of
hundreds of thousands of jobs to Mexico, China, India
and other countries. To add insult to injury, in the
run-up to the 1996 election, Clinton signed one of the
most important innovations of the Right, the Welfare
Reform Act, giving away the most durable guaranteed
income program of the New Deal legacy. Al Gore was busy
as well. In 1996 the Clinton administration promised
not only to end "welfare as we know it" but to end the
era of big government. Under the vice-president's
direction the Federal Government cut 200,000 or 10% of
its jobs, a bold stroke which became a model of many
states who gladly followed suit.

The Clinton legacy is this: holding its coalition
together largely by fear, The DP is openly aligned with
some fractions of the commanding heights of economic
power — the financial services sector Its position on
the global front is to defend the traditional bonds of
transnational empire, to oppose unilateralism if our
imperial partners, France, Germany and Japan are
prepared to negotiate responsibility. At the same time
it is a free trade party and has made no moves to
assure workers in steel, textiles and garments and
other production sectors that a Kerry administration,
no more than Clinton himself, would hold up trade
agreements that did not protect the jobs and living
standards of US workers and those in the developing

But the preponderant liberal and labor leadership seems
content to tail the Democrats rather than challenging
the party?s commitments and priorities. When Andy
Stern, the president of the SEIU, with a million and a
quarter members, dares utter words of criticism, a
chorus mobilizes against him on the ground that, as
House Speaker Thomas O'Neill said on the eve of the
Panama invasion, "this is no time for complicated
debate". If the lib-labs are working behind the scenes
to change Kerry's open-throated support for neo-liberal
economic policies and in behalf of the interests of
empire, so far the results have been meager. Instead,
even as a dozen AFL-CIO unions have condemned the Iraq
war and workers strive to keep their collective heads
above water in the face of unrelenting corporate
attacks against their working conditions and living
standards, in fear the unions pour millions into the
Kerry campaign coffers. Even Stern says his union will
contribute $65 million. Kerry did not attend the huge
abortion rights march mounted by feminist organizations
but enjoys their uncritical backing, and has said not
one word to reassure millions of blacks and Latinos
that his administration would take bold steps to
address the mounting poverty and joblessness in their
communities. Still NAACP and the leaders of the black
churches are solidly in his corner.

Thus it cannot even be said that labor and liberal
formations are "coalition partners". Rather they have
become supplicants of power and can arouse themselves
only in the wake of the most right wing assaults on
past gains such as abortion. Ignoring New York Giants
football coach Steve Owen's statement that the "best
defense is a good offense", it may be that Kerry may
win the 2004 elections because as recent polls have
indicated anti-Bush sentiment motivates 61% of his
voters. But he will enter the White House without a
mandate for change. Like Clinton, labor can expect only
marginal gains from a Kerry administration which, if it
maintains its stance of free trade, may prove as
detrimental to its interests as did the Clinton's
reign. Yet, as if to vindicate the most basic precept
of sado-masochistic relationships, the more they are
ignored or beaten, the more they crave another lashing
from the whip of the authoritarian father.

Underlying these puzzling signs that the left and the
liberals are prepared to do next to nothing to force
Kerry to make commitments to their agenda that would
guide his administration is a pervasive reality: the
center-right that leads the Democratic Party will
choose not to win if it means disrupting their long
march, if the price of victory is that it must take a
left turn, even tactically; and the party's left —
principally the constituent organizations and the
intellectuals — do not believe they have the legitimacy
to govern. For more than a quarter century they have
submitted their fate to a centrism that boldly declares
their interests secondary to the so-called "national"
interest and subject to being sacrificed, if corporate
America refuses to entertain or negotiate around their
agendas. Having, as C.Wright Mills once observed that
the unions, still largest organizations of the liberal
wing, become a "dependent variable" in the political
economy, their unease is not sufficient to stir them
into opposition or even dissent. Disempowered and
bereft of vision, the farthest horizon of the liberals
is to gain some time and space to go back to business
as usual. It is not a formula for the approach of a new