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Triangulating the Base

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If you thought Democrats lost big in the 2014 midterms because they were outspent or out maneuvered by Republicans, think again.

Progressive policies won wherever they were in play. Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC all passed ballot measures legalizing marijuana. While one might expect Oregon to go progressive, Alaska and DC bleed deep red -- yet even there voters supported so-called "liberal" legislation. And it wasn't just for pot. Across the country, measures that supported increasing the minimum wage, gun control, and protecting reproductive rights were also approved by voters.

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The same was true for Democratic candidates. When the candidate ran as a progressive, like Dan Malloy, for example, or Tom Butt or Jovanka Beckles or Eduardo Martinez, the candidate won. When the candidate ran as a Republican-lite, the candidate lost. Big time. (Paging Ms Grimes! Paging Mr Braley! Your party is waiting for you at the Main Exit!)

Raising the minimum wage? Ending the wars? Expanding affordable health care? Holding the government accountable? They're in the 2014 Democratic platform, for heaven's sake. But here you have Democratic candidates ducking and dodging as if they're just the latest talking points. Principle be damned.

When considered from a distance, the problem appears structural. The American electorate is a wildly diverse collection of allegiances with a variety of concerns and yet only two political parties through which to express them. It's as if your house had several dozen water lines but only two drains. Things are going to back up quickly. When considered close up, however, the problem appears political. Since the late 1960s and the revolt of the hardhats, Democrats have struggled to define their party, lunging blindly from crisis to crisis as if fencing in the dark. Somewhere along the way the Democratic leadership decided to ditch their base in favor of Wall Street and the Big Banks. Traditional democratic voters were now the enemy, losers and takers and "f***ing retards" who should be happy with crumbs from the master's table. Meanwhile, Democratic big shots were free to court their new base, the rich and powerful. The rest, as we know, is history.

How did Democrats get here? How did the party of nurses and cops and the poor become the party of K Street millionaires?

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The answer is simple: Bill Clinton. He's the guy directly responsible for stuffing the Democratic Party into the pockets of big corporations. Once elected, he declared "the era of big government is over" -- by which he meant that part of government that helps average people. The Big Dog called it "triangulation." First, he rebranded the Democratic base as the far left, declared it a fringe element and socked it with the "L" word. How dare they demand child care and decent wages! Next, as a solution to the non-problem he just invented, Clinton began moving the party to the right, which his administration referred to as the "center," thus ideologically aligning it with a leadership that was already lounging with their new constituents at exclusive country clubs.

The logic is inescapable. If you redefine the base of the Democratic Party as a collection of far left wackos, then moving the party to the right would appear to re-position it back to the center. But the Democratic base has always hovered around the political middle, so when Clinton triangulated the party to the right, he actually pushed it into far-right territory -- a cleverly disguised corporate "center" from which he could legislate on virtually every issue.

Wages and workers' rights? It was Bill Clinton who sold out unions and union workers when he signed NAFTA into law in 1994. As predicted, the deal was a boon for Clinton's corporate donors and a bust for American workers. (Thoughtful readers will recall it was Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for president in 2008, who campaigned on "fixing" NAFTA, but who, once in power, signed three trade bills exactly like it.)

Social programs? It was Bill Clinton who sold out single mothers, children and the working poor when he made deals with Republicans to cut funding for Head Start, school lunches, and low-income energy assistance programs. The Big Dog also gutted welfare.

Earned retirement benefits? It was Bill Clinton who sold out retirees and elderly workers when he raided Social Security -- not that any of this should come as a surprise. Three years ago, at a conference sponsored by Wall Street investor Peter Peterson, Clinton boasted of his efforts as president to cut Social Security. Thankfully, he was stopped by leaders of both parties. (According to Dean Baker, had Clinton gotten his way, recipients would have seen a 15% reduction in Social Security benefits by 2014.)

Home mortgages, personal investments, pension funds? It was Bill Clinton who sold out pretty much everyone when he revoked the Glass-Steagall Act. You know, the law that kept his Wall Street buds from stealing your life savings? The Big Dog got rid of it. Oops!

Here's a fun riddle. Given the enormous damage he inflicted, did Clinton actually know what he was doing when he revoked Glass-Steagall? Or was he misled by his financial advisers? If you said "yes" to both, you'd be correct. If you're confused, join the party. It's all part of the fun. The setup comes when Clinton appears on national teevee and says he was "wrong" to have listened to his financial advisers on Glass-Steagall. He said he'd gotten "bad advice." The knockdown comes scant seconds after his appearance, with the cameras turned off, when Clinton tells reporters that in fact he'd "received excellent advice on the economy and the financial system from his economic team." See how it works? Riddle solved.

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Democrats running on progressive policies win elections. Too bad they won't be in play, at least not as long as their leadership remains a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate America.

 

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Teacher, writer, filmmaker living in California.

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