Barbra Storms Capitol Hill

The big political news of the week: Barbra Streisand is upset with Republicans and disappointed by Democrats.

In a memo she dispatched to several Democrats on Capital Hill, the singer/actor/Clinton-funder asked, "What has happened to the Democrats since the November election? Some of you seem paralyzed, demoralized and depressed." She walloped George W. Bush, "who stole the presidency," for "poisoning our air and water" and for kowtowing to corporate America, which funded his campaign. She observed (in bold-face type) "this is a key moment in our history." And the diva-Democrat maintained, "We cannot let the right wing roll back more than thirty years of social progress."

Her advice: Democrats must unify, must "draw attention to the differences in our parties," must "speak on TV, on radio, and in the newspapers" about the Florida election, and must "keep hammering home about the legislative favors Bush is granting his corporate supporters in exchange for their campaign contributions." In particular, she pointed out that "Republicans recently tightened bankruptcy laws" to assist credit card companies such as MBNA, which dumped $1.3 million into Bush's campaign.

Don't let Bill Clinton's last-minute pardons "divert attention from the success of his administration over the past eight years," she pleaded. The public, she asserted, is "being fooled" by Bush and his nice-guy rhetoric. Her bottom-line: "Democrats are the party of, by and for the people while Republicans are the party of, by, and for the corporation." If the Democrats forcefully and effectively convey that, all will be well.

Streisand's blast prompted a fair amount of hee-hawing among the media-ocracy. From Malibu comes populist pronouncements?

But her frustration was understandable. Bush bolted out of the gate as a conservative. All his campaign talk of encouraging a bipartisan atmosphere in Washington and of being a "different kind of Republican" has turned out to be a lie. The Democrats have been able to do little, as Bush has massacred environmental and workplace safety standards.

Al Gore, for one, has checked out. Rather than confront Bush's assault on environmental measures (including the Kyoto Protocols on global warming Gore helped draft), Gore has been teaching journalism at Columbia University, where he invited David Letterman to speak on the role of humor in political coverage. What happened to the guy who promised to "stay and fight"? It was merely a few years ago that Al Gore wrote in his eco-manifesto, _Earth in the Balance_, that "we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization." He ain't doing much rescuing these days.

Streisand has Bush pegged. But there's a problem with her analysis: the Democratic Party. Does she truly believe it is the "party of the people"? That's more a wish than a description.

Consider her first example of Bush's corporate favoritism -- the bankruptcy bill. In mid-March, it passed the Senate 83 to 15, with 36 out of 50 Democrats voting yea. If those Democrats had voted against the bill, the legislation would have been killed.

Two weeks later, a key campaign finance vote loomed in the Senate. At issue was whether the Senators would raise the limits on what's known as hard-money contributions -- direct donations to candidates. The current limit is $1000. The pending legislation called for doubling that. This change would benefit only those well-off enough to cut a four-digit check to a politician -- and it would increase the already substantial clout of the wealthy within the political system. How did the "party of the people" deal with this matter? Thirty-four Democrats voted with the GOPers to pass the hard-money raise.

True, there are stark differences between Democrats and Republicans on key issues, and Democrats do discomfort corporate lobbyists more than Republicans. But the Democrats -- as a party -- are hardly single-mindedly devoted to the public interest over big-money interests.

The Senate Democrats did initially stand together against Bush's super-sized relieve-the-rich tax cuts -- before 15 Democrats sided with the Republicans to support a smaller but still significant tax cut -- but in the House, 58 Democrats (more than one out of four) joined the Republicans in voting to repeal the estate tax, a budget-busting action that benefits only the wealthiest people in the nation.

Streisand is pissed at Bush for reneging on his campaign promise to limit carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to global warming. Bush has yanked the United States out of the Kyoto Protocols, which calls for reductions in CO2. "We will not do anything that harms our economy, because first things first are the people who live in America," Bush said. How's that for compassion? Let Africa suffer drought and famine, let the Netherlands and Pacific island-nations be threatened by rising sea levels, let Third World delta residents lose their homes. Bush will countenance no sacrifices to save the world from the ravages of global warming.

Yet Senate Democrats have taken their own anti-Kyoto position. In 1997, the Senate -- led by Democratic Senator Robert Byrd -- approved a resolution decrying any global warming accord that mandates emission reductions for the United States without doing the same for developing nations. In other words, an agreement that called on the industrial nations -- the biggest CO2 producers -- to take the first steps in reducing emissions would be DOA in the Senate. (By the way, the United States, which contains about 4 percent of the world's population, produces about 25 percent of its carbon dioxide.) Every Democratic Senator voted for this resolution, which passed 95-0.

Streisand is no fool. But she does have a fondness for Clinton that conflicts with her advocacy of people-first politics, for Clinton often engaged in his own share of corporate catering. He pushed through NAFTA, GATT, and free trade with China -- all items yearned for by the corporate class and opposed by labor, environmentalists, consumer advocates, and human rights activist. With the support of Democrats in Congress, Clinton signed a telecom bill that granted more power to corporate media oligopolies. With Hillary's help, he crafted a health care plan designed to placate big business -- and, still, the business community tore it apart. And Clinton led the way as the Democrats exploited loopholes in campaign finance law to bag records amounts of corporate soft money. The Democratic convention in LA last summer was an orgy of corporate-sponsored receptions and events. Party of the people? Not in those lobbyist-filled sky-boxes at the Staples Center.

As for pardon-mania, Streisand is right to note that Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich drew far more flak than the pardons of Bush I, who handed out pardons to an anti-Castro terrorist implicated in the murder of 73 people, a heroin dealer, and several Reagan Administration officials who could have linked Bush further to the Iran-contra scandal. But that does not diminish the significance of Clinton's still-unfathomable action. For years, Rich was a poster-boy for corporate crime. In addition to being accused of massive tax fraud, he allegedly sold oil to the apartheid regime in South Africa, violating a UN boycott. He was connected to an aluminum factory in West Virginia that tried to crush its union.

Clinton's pardon of Rich did not directly affect the health of American citizens -- as does Bush's repeal of arsenic and ergonomics regulations -- but it did influence the civic health of the nation, for it was an important (and repugnant) demonstration of how justice operates in the United States. And it was further proof that Clinton's decision-making was not always guided by a concern for common folk.

Streisand urged her Democratic pals to "keep reminding people" that they are the party of the people and the Republicans are the party of the corporations. But in order for the Democrats do that, they must first earn the label Streisand applies to them.

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