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Eye on the Prize

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In the understandably general yearning for “change” in the governing of this country, we might pause to reflect on just what is being changed, and by whom, and for whom. At Madison Square Garden in New York from July 13 until the balloons fell on the evening of July 16, four days devoted to heralding the perfected “centrism” of the Democratic Party, no hint of what had once been that party’s nominal constituency was allowed to penetrate prime time, nor was any suggestion of what had once been that party’s tacit role, that of assimilating immigration and franchising the economically disenfranchised, or what used to be called “coopting” discontent. Jesse Jackson and Jimmy Carter got slotted in during the All-Star Game. Jerry Brown spoke of the people who “fight our wars but never come to our receptions” mainly on C-SPAN.

This convention,” Representative Tom Foley declared, and a number of speakers echoed him, “looks like our country, not like a country club,” but the preferred images were precisely those of a sunbelt country club, for example Tipper and Al Gore dancing sedately on the podium. The preferred sound was not “Happy Days Are Here Again” but Fleetwood Mac, Christine McVie’s request before the New Hampshire primary that the Clinton campaign stop using her song “Don’t Stop” notwithstanding.

Those who wanted to dance with the Gores, join the club, made it clear that they were transcending, as their candidate had often put it, “the brain-dead policies in both parties,” most noticeably their own. “Democrat” and “Republican,” we heard repeatedly, as if a prayer for electoral rain, were old labels, words without meaning, as were “liberal” and “conservative.” “The choice we offer is not conservative or liberal, in many ways it is not even Republican or Democratic,” the candidate told us. “It is different. It is new…. I call it a New Covenant.”

What Governor Clinton had been calling “a New Covenant” (for a while he had called it “a Third Way,” which had sounded infelicitously Peruvian) was essentially the Democratic Leadership Council’s “New Choice,” or more recently its “New Social Contract,” a series of policy adjustments meant to “reinvent government” (as in Reinventing Government by David Osborne, a Clinton adviser) not at all by diminishing but by repackaging its role. There was in the New Covenant or the Third Way or the New Choice or the New Social Contract much that was current in Republican as well as Democratic policy thinking, but there was also a shell game; part of the “New Covenant,” for example, called for the federal government to “cut 100,000 bureaucrats” by attrition, but it was unclear who, if not a new hundred thousand bureaucrats, would administer the new federal programs ($133.7 billion to “Put America to Work,” $22.5 billion to “Reward Work and Families,” $63.3 billion to encourage “Lifetime Learning”) promised in the ticket’s Putting People First: How We Can All Change America.1 The “New Covenant” was nonetheless the candidate’s “game plan” and it was also, covering another Republican base, his “new choice based on old values.”

In certain ways this convention’s true keynote address was delivered not by the keynote speakers of record but by the Democratic National Committee finance chairman, Senator John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV of West Virginia. Senator Rockefeller, describing himself as “one of those Democrats who doesn’t threaten big donors,” reported that this was a year in which it was possible to mount “the best financed Democratic presidential campaign ever,” one in which the “donor base is bigger than ever,” enabling the party to buy “focus groups, polling, research, whatever it takes to get the message out.” The message was this: we’re tough, kick ass, get a life. “We Democrats have some changing to do,” the candidate said, accepting the nomination on behalf of those who “pay the taxes, raise the kids and play by the rules,” by which he meant “the forgotten middle class” that had been the basis of his campaign since New Hampshire. He had an ultimatum for “the fathers in this country who have chosen to abandon their children by neglecting their child support: take responsibility for your children or we will force you to do so.” He had a promise to “end welfare as we know it,” to put “100,000 more police on your streets,” to set right a situation in which “the Prime Minister of Japan…actually said…he felt sympathy for America.”

This world the candidate evoked, one in which the Prime Minister of Japan conspired with welfare queens and deadbeat dads (referred to delicately in Putting People First as “deadbeat parents”) to deride those who paid the taxes and raised the kids and played by the rules, began and ended with the woolly resentment of the focus group, and so remained securely distanced from what might be anyone’s actual readiness to address actual concerns. The candidate spoke about “taking on the big insurance companies to lower costs and provide health care to all Americans,” but Putting People First made it clear that this more comprehensive health care was to be paid for not only by decreasing Medicare benefits for those with incomes over $125,000, a proposal with which no one could argue, but also by “cutting medical costs,” which means limiting either medical fees or medical reimbursements, or, again (but this time at all income levels), decreasing benefits; the practical effect here is to either compel participation or institutionalize a two-class health system. (This is a thorny business. One reason medical costs keep rising is not necessarily because the consumer is being “gouged,” as Putting People First suggests, but precisely because insured consumers now make up certain deficits incurred by the treatment of patients subject to the restricted payment schedules specified by Medicare and Medicaid.)

The candidate spoke about “less entitlement” and more “empower-ment,” the preferred word among the Bush administration’s own “New Paradigm” theorists for such doubtfully practicable ideas as selling housing projects to their tenants, but it remained unclear just what entitlement he could have the political will to cut; the single “entitlement reform” detailed as an actual monetary saving in Putting People First was the Medicare cutback for those with incomes over $125,000, and it was hard not to remember that four months before Governor Clinton had saturated Florida retirement condos with the news that Paul Tsongas, who had proposed to limit cost-of-living increases on Social Security benefits to recipients with incomes over $125,000, was against old people.

He spoke about reducing defense spending, but also about maintaining “the world’s strongest defense”; the projected figure for “1993 defense cuts (beyond Bush)” given in Putting People First, however, was only two billion dollars, and Governor Clinton, during the press of his losing primary campaign in Connecticut, had promised to save the Groton-based Seawolf submarine program, one multibillion-dollar defense expenditure marked for a cut by the Bush administration. He spoke about the need to “clean out the bureaucracy,” as he had during all his primary campaigns except one, that in New York, where his key union endorsements included the Civil Service Employees Association (some 200,000 members in New York State) and District Council 37 (135,000 members in New York City) of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. “There is a real opportunity in the citadel of the failures of the old bureaucratic approaches to talk about new ideas,” Will Marshall, the president of the Democratic Leadership Council’s Progressive Policy Institute and a Clinton adviser, had acknowledged to Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times on this point. “On the other hand, he’s got a lot of support from public employee unions, he’s fighting for his life and he needs support wherever he can get it.”

These were Democrats, in other words, who accepted the responsibility with which Ron Brown had charged them: to “keep our eye on the prize, so to speak.” These were Democrats who congratulated themselves for staying, as they described it, “on message.” Not much at their convention got left to improvisation. They spoke about “unity.” They spoke about a “new generation,” about “change,” about “putting people first.” As evidence of putting people first, they offered “real people” videos, soft-focus videos featuring such actual citizens as “Kyle Harrison,” a student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville who cooperatively described himself as a member of “the forgotten middle class.” Convention delegates were given what a Clinton aide called the “prayer-book,” a set of six blue pocket cards covering questions they might be asked, for example about “The Real Bill Clinton.” (“His father died before he was born and his mother had to leave home to study nursing…. Bill grew up in a home without indoor plumbing.”) The volunteers who worked the DNC’s “VVIP” skyboxes at the Garden were equipped with approved conversation, or “Quotable Lines” (“Al Gore complements Bill Clinton, they are a strong team,” or “The Republicans have run out of ideas, they’re stuck in a rut…all Americans are losing out”), as well as with answers to more special, more VVIP-oriented questions, as in “Celebrity Talking Points” #3 and #4:

  1. Tipper Gore previously worked on a drive to put warning labels on albums classified violent or obscene. Isn’t this a restriction of our 1st Amendment right to freedom of speech?

First, let’s be clear—Al Gore is the Vice Presidential candidate and this convention will determine the platform for this party and for this campaign. Second, Tipper Gore is entitled to her own opinions as is any other American. She is a good campaigner and will work hard on behalf of the platform of this party and the Clinton-Gore ticket.

  1. Why are some entertainment personalities who normally endorse Democratic candidates sitting this election year out or going to Ross Perot?

There are many other issues such as Human Rights, the Environment, Women Rights, AIDS and other such important issues which have become a priority for certain individuals. Also, those who have chosen other campaigns must have their reasons and I respect their right to do that.

When in doubt,” skybox volunteers were advised, “the best answer is, ‘Thank you, I’ll get a staff person to get you the campaign’s position on that issue’.” It was frequently said to be The Year of the Woman, and the convention had clearly been shaped to make the ticket attractive to women, but its notion of what might attract women was clumsy, off, devised as it was by men who wanted simultaneously to signal the electorate that they were in firm control of any woman who might have her own agenda. There was the production number from The Will Rogers Follies with the poufs on the breasts. There was the less than convincing transformation of two mature and reportedly capable women, Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Gore, into double-the-fun blondes who jumped up and down, clapped on cue, and traveled, as Mrs. Reagan had, with a hairdresser on the manifest for comb-outs.

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    To be published by Times Books in early September.

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