Tuesday, July 27, 2004

"It's a Hollow Party"

Remember the New York Times op-ed which said that one of the significant indicators of electoral fortunes is "the candidate-to-opponent ratio" in a party platform?
Another platform indicator is the candidate-to-opponent ratio. In 1984, the Democrats, in their hulking platform, found it almost impossible to spell out their policies without reference to the Republicans. Ronald Reagan, for example, was mentioned 213 times, while Walter Mondale, the nominee, didn't come up once —- and he lost in a rout. Republicans tried the same tactic in 1996, singling out Bill Clinton 153 times —- and giving Bob Dole a paltry 45 mentions. If the strategy was to rally the base, it fell flat with the voters —- an important lesson for members of the "anybody but Bush" crowd, who trust hatred of the president, and not support for John Kerry, to ensure a Democratic victory this year. (Peter Buttigieg, Peter V. Emerson, and Ganesh Sitaraman, "Winning Between the Lines," July 10, 2004)
Now that the 2004 Democratic Party Platform "Strong at Home, Respected in the World" is available online, let's count how many times it actually mentions John Kerry and George W. Bush respectively:
Kerry: 22 times
Bush: 39 times
While Kerry's fighting chance is better than Dole's and Mondale's, that's not saying much about the virtue of the candidate this year or the party that chose him. As the platform index suggests, the strength of support for Kerry is barely half that of opposition to Bush.

Though few Democrats dare voice what they really think about Kerry in public in the midst of the party's national convention, it would not be surprising if the majority of the staunchest supporters of the Democratic Party on the left shared SEIU President Andy Stern's discontent:
Breaking sharply with the enforced harmony of the Democratic National Convention, the president of the largest AFL-CIO union said Monday that both organized labor and the Democratic Party might be better off in the long run if Sen. John F. Kerry loses the election.

Andrew L. Stern, the head of the 1.6 million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said in an interview with The Washington Post that both the party and its longtime ally, the labor movement, are "in deep crisis," devoid of new ideas and working with archaic structures.

Stern argued that Kerry's election might stifle needed reform within the party and the labor movement. He said he still believes that Kerry overall would make a better president than President Bush, and his union has poured huge resources into that effort. But he contends that Kerry's election would have the effect of slowing the "evolution" of the dialogue within the party.

Asked whether if Kerry became president it would help or hurt those internal party deliberations, Stern said, "I think it hurts."

Stern's dissatisfaction with the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party is not new, but his decision to voice his frustration on the opening day of a carefully scripted convention was an unwelcome surprise to Kerry's convention managers, who had been proclaiming their delight at the absence of any internal conflicts.

Speaking of the effort to create new political and union organizations, Stern said, "I don't know if it would survive with a Democratic president," because Kerry, like former president Bill Clinton, would use the party for his own political benefit and labor leaders would become partners of the new establishment.

"It is a hollow party," Stern said, adding that "if John Kerry becomes president, it hurts" chances of reforming the Democrats and organized labor.

Stern is perhaps the most outspoken of the leaders of four or five unions that have been talking about breaking away from the AFL-CIO to form some kind of new workers movement. In the struggle for the Democratic nomination last winter, Stern's union, along with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), delivered an early endorsement to former Vermont governor Howard H. Dean -- a step that solidified Dean's status as the early favorite for the nomination. . . .

Stern made it clear that his complaints long preceded Kerry's nomination. He said that when Clinton was president, he demonstrated how little he cared for the Democratic Party. Calling the former president "the greatest fundraiser of his time," Stern asked: "If you think the Democratic Party is valuable, why would you leave it bankrupt?" Other elected officials are equally indifferent to the party, he said, adding that if Kerry is elected "he would smother" any effort to give it more intellectual heft and organizational muscle.

The SEIU, representing health care and nursing home workers, state and local employees and janitors among its 1.6 million members, is part of a coalition of liberal, feminist and environmental organizations working in an alliance called Americans Coming Together. ACT has raised more than $85 million, according to fundraiser Harold Ickes, and hopes to reach $130 million by November. Most of the money is being spent in targeted areas to register and turn out the vote of people believed to be likely to support Kerry.

Stern said the SEIU has put about $65 million in union resources into efforts to elect Kerry and other worker-friendly Democrats, the bulk of it directly aimed at labor efforts in behalf of the senator from Massachusetts.

But Stern complained that motivating blue-collar families who have not voted in the past is being impeded because Kerry and the Democrats have declined to address what he calls "the Wal-Mart economy," a system in which he says employers deliberately keep wages so low and hours so short that workers are forced to turn to state Medicaid programs for their families' health care.

He also criticized what he called the vagueness of the Democratic platform on trade issues. . . .

Stern also said he is not interested in trying to succeed Sweeney as the head of the AFL-CIO but left the door open to leading a breakaway effort.

He said he is convinced from his experience in the civil rights movement that "pressure is needed" to bring about real change. "It was not enough to have Martin Luther King Jr.," Stern said. "You needed Stokely Carmichael" to raise the threat of disruption unless demands were met. Carmichael was the flamboyant civil rights activist known for coining the term "black power."

Stern is perhaps the most outspoken member of the New Unity Partnership, an alliance of the SEIU, the Laborers' International Union of North America, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, UNITE, and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. All but the carpenters union are part of the AFL-CIO. The partnership has repeatedly warned that declining union membership threatens the viability of organized labor, especially in the private sector, which has seen a steady decline in union workers.

On June 21, during the SEIU's convention in San Francisco, Stern caused a stir throughout organized labor by declaring: "Our employers have changed, our industries have changed, and the world has certainly changed, but the labor movement's structure and culture have sadly stayed the same."

Union activists must "either transform the AFL-CIO or build something stronger that can really change workers' lives," he said. (David S. Broder, "SEIU Chief Says the Democrats Lack Fresh Ideas: Stern Asserts That a Kerry Win Could Set Back Efforts to Reform the Party," Washington Post, July 27, 2004, p. A13)
On his blog entry today, however, Stern backpedals furiously: Andy Stern, "100% Behind Kerry" (Blog for the Future, July 27, 2004). That is to be expected, especially if Stern's own "fresh ideas" have yet to go beyond supporting Howard Dean, teaming up with George Soros, et al. to create America Coming Together ("Soros's and [Peter] Lewis's donations made it possible for longtime leaders of Democratic interest groups to do something they had never done in the modern era: work together. . . . The founders of ACT included Ellen Malcolm and Carl Pope, the heads of Emily's List and the Sierra Club respectively, Andy Stern from the service employees' union and Steve Rosenthal, the former political director of the A.F.L.-C.I.O." [Matt Bai, "Wiring the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy," New York Times, July 25, 2004]), and organizing the New Unity Partnership.

Stern says that SEIU "will spend $65 million and are sending over 2,004 workers to work full time in battleground states" (July 27, 2004), all for John Kerry, whose victory, Stern admits, may weaken the bargaining position of the activist base of the Democratic Party and the labor movement vis-a-vis the inner circle of the Democratic Party elite. What if the union, instead, committed the same sum of money and the same number of full-time organizers, for instance, to an all-out effort to campaign for ballot initiatives for universal health care in all 24 states that permit them? $65 million is enough to collect roughly 18-9 million signatures of registered voters (currently, it costs about $3.50 per name in California). According to Caroline J. Tolbert, John A. Grummel, and Daniel A. Smith's research, "the presence and usage of the initiative process is associated with higher voter turnout in both presidential and midterm elections. The disparity in turnout rates between initiative and noninitiative states has been increasing over time, estimated at 7% to 9% higher in midterm and 3% to 4.5% higher in presidential elections in the 1990s" ("The Effects of Ballot Initiatives on Voter Turnout in the American States," American Politics Research 29.6, November 2001). Putting universal health care at the top of the political agenda in 24 states at the same time as registering voters and raising voter turnouts -- especially in such swing states as Ohio -- sounds like money better spent than funding endless anti-Bush advertising and registering voters only "to vote for John Kerry and Democrats in federal, state and local elections" ("ACT's Plan for Victory"). New and old voters who support such initiatives will vote for candidates on the left, whether they are Democrats, Greens, members of other third parties, or independents, but they won't necessarily become loyal to the Democratic Party, so the initiatives will serve as incentives for it to try to earn left-wing votes.

If Stern really thinks that it takes not just "internal forces" but "external pressures" -- like Stokely Carmichael advocating Black Power and saying "Burn, Baby, Burn" -- to create social changes, as he says he does in his Washington Post interview (July 26, 2004), he has to come up with a strategy to build working-class bases of power independent of the Democratic Party and mobilize resources to put it into practice, rather than wasting $65 million on what he calls "a party of stale ideas."

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