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It May Be Necessary to Destroy the Democratic Party in Order to Save It

By Andy Markowitz | Posted 1/17/2001

Being Bill Clinton

Sweet Little Lies

It May Be Necessary to Destroy the Democratic Party in Order to Save It

Brother Bill

The Hustler

Queer as Votes

Role Over

Oh Danny Boy

10 Years After, or A Tale of Two Ex-Presidencies

For me, the defining image of Bill Clinton's presidency has nothing to do with sax solos or cigars, wagging fingers or artfully bitten lower lips. It's Clinton having dinner with a bunch of fat cats at Washington's ritzy Hay-Adams Hotel in 1995, captured on a White House videotape which PBS got hold of and aired in a 1998 Frontline documentary. The president is thanking his guests for helping him evade campaign-finance laws.

Not literally, of course. Clinton simply explains to these wealthy donors, in so many words, how their million or so dollars in contributions to his re-election went through the Democratic Party rather than his own campaign fund so as to avoid pesky federal regulations: "[W]e realized that we could run these ads through the Democratic Party, which meant that we could raise money in $20,000 and $50,000 and $100,000 lots, so we didn't have to do it all in $1,000 and run down my--you know, what I can spend, which is limited by law. So that's what we've done." In politics, this kind of money is called "soft." In more semantically precise circles, it's called "laundered."

It's become accepted wisdom that Bill Clinton's political success rested on outflanking the Republicans by co-opting several of their key issues: welfare reform, balancing the budget, getting Tough on Crime. There is some truth in this, but a mere issues roll call masks a deeper reality. Clinton didn't so much turn his party rightward as align it with the market-worship that has floated the GOP's ideological boat for generations. As social critic Thomas Frank points out in his new book One Market Under God, Clinton essentially finished the job Ronald Reagan started--"renounc[ing] his party's traditional faith in 'big government' as a means of achieving economic justice," making the world safe for the unfettered movement of capital and companies. Under the watch of the party that traditionally served as a check on corporate power, Wall Street's most cherished dreams (the repeal of New Deal-era banking regulations, the end of welfare, freedom to merge and trade with anyone anywhere) came true. The result was an unprecedented redistribution of wealth--upward.

Which brings us back to the Hay-Adams Hotel. If Clinton has turned the Democratic Party into a pale copy of its counterpart in matters of economic policy, he's turned it into a virtual replica of the GOP as a political operation--a perpetual-motion money machine. While Clinton played the populist, he and his party courted the kind of wealth that has long fattened Republican coffers, with an assiduousness any GOP bagman would envy.

And it worked. From 1991 to '99, the campaign-finance watchdog group the Center for Public Integrity reports, a dozen major corporations--representing tobacco, telecommunications, and oil, among other industries--gave at least $850,000 to the Republicans and the Democrats. According to Common Cause, six of the top 10 soft-money donors last year contributed to both parties. It's probably just a coincidence that at the same time Clinton was tapping corporate dollar-veins he was deregulating the telecommunications industry and arm-twisting for NAFTA. Or that, in a valedictory Talk magazine interview, he praised U.S. workers for making profitability job one, becoming "more productive" while eschewing "inflationary wage demands"--that is, doing more and making less. After all, one supposes, it'll trickle down.

Frontline attributed this political money-frenzy to the body blow Clinton took in the 1994 midterm elections, but the roots go back further, to Democratic desperation after a third straight landslide presidential loss in 1988. The GOP had seemingly locked up the South and West, and its fund-raising was the stuff of political legend;pundits wondered openly whether the Democrats would ever return to the White House. Clinton, feeling our pain in public and dialing for dollars in private, broke the hammerlock and made his party competitive again. It's a feckless shadow of its former self, but its not a bunch of losers anymore (two terms!), and for that most Dems are willing to overlook pretty much anything.

Unreconstructed Naderite though I may be, I'm not fool enough to pretend there are no differences between the major parties. As many people as Clinton has sold out (just ask a gay serviceman or -woman--or rather, don't), there are a few things about the past eight years I'm thankful for: the Family Leave Act, Ginsberg and Breyer, a certain amount of wilderness protection. If he governed like a Republican, at least he governed like a moderate Republican; that's leverage enough to keep Democratic voters on the hook while the party keeps looking out for stockholders and CEOs, and thus enough to foreclose any incentive for it to change. That's Bill Clinton's legacy: the triumph of the politics of we'll-do-less-harm. Hail to the chief.

Andy Markowitz is editor of City Paper.

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