The Democrats in Iowa: Field of Dreams?

DES MOINES -- Iowa during the presidential primaries seems like an oasis of participatory democracy. A couple of evenings ago, the populist anti-war crusader Dennis Kucinich marched in the State Fair parade with 70 followers. Down the street was Howard Dean, who rallied listeners in a courtyard to join, then chatted for an hour with anyone who wandered by.

As I watched, Fred Noon, a Vietnam vet who heads a laborers local, told me that past candidates would mow his lawn or wash clothes for his vote. I was beginning to believe Fred until he started chuckling. It was only half-true, he said. Meanwhile, the creamy-skinned teenagers seeking to be crowned county pork princesses were strolling by.

At Drake University, 150 Iowa progressives, led by three former state senators, were founding a statewide network to continue organizing around children's needs, tax reform, immigrants and the environment after the presidential candidates leave town next February. Every four years, they could be an organized nucleus for peace and justice advocates trying to influence the presidential debate.

Of course, participatory democracy has its limits in a plutocracy. But, for the moment, progressive networks are vibrant in Iowa, fueling a rising sense that George Bush can be defeated in 2004. The public everywhere is uneasy with the price tags and body bags from Iraq, trillion-dollar tax cuts, multi-billion dollar deficits, and the loss of two million jobs and counting. Polls showing that only 45-50 percent are ready to re-elect a wartime incumbent (with only 21 percent among the fast-growing Latino bloc), which must make Karl Rove more nervous than he appears.

Rove's dilemma is how to maximize turnout among the hardcore Republican base while still positioning the president as a compassionate conservative. Last time Rove fell short electorally, requiring the unseemly dispatch of Republican staffers on an Enron jet to physically stop the voting in Florida until a politicized Supreme Court could select Bush as president. White House pollsters know that Bush loses if he repeats his 2000 percentage in 2004, simply because millions of new voters, primarily Latino, will be added to the electorate. Bush lost to Gore by about 544,000 votes in 2000; if Bush gets the same percentage of the vote in 2004, he will lose by three million votes. (NYT, Dec. 20, 2002)

Rove needs to convince his base that a second term is a Second Coming. But that feeds a growing sense of fear and loathing, even hatred, among millions of Americans that could become comparable to the disdain toward Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon in the past. Those emotions could drive unprecedented numbers of voters to the polls next year, overcoming Rove's effort to keep his own base hyper-stimulated.

Back in 1967, an independent Democrat named Allard Lowenstein started criss-crossing America on a seemingly utopian crusade to dump Lyndon Johnson. Eventually, the unpredicted events of 1968 unseated the incumbent. Setting aside his well-known quarrels with the New Left, the country could benefit from a Lowenstein-style crusade this year, keeping the rainbow of Democrats unified in their rage against the neo-conservatives and right-wing Republicans perceived as usurping the White House.

Obviously, differences exist and will intensify among the Democratic candidates. I support Dennis Kucinich because he voices the progressive agenda most clearly and because he's there for the long haul. I also am heartened, even amazed, at the massive public support for Howard Dean's opposition to Iraq and to business-as-usual Democratic look-alikes. I can be convinced, like most progressive Democratic voters, to support a more "electable" Democratic nominee if the party can avoid dampening the enthusiasm of the grass roots in the name of "centrism."

This will require a dump-Bush campaign greater than the sum of its component Democratic parts. Efforts in this direction are being initiated by national labor, women and environmental groups, with a startling $75 million budget projection. The effort reflects a grassroots feeling, says SEIU president Andrew Stern, that "everything they have worked for all their lives is at stake."

But questions remain. In a top-down, short-term registration drive, will issues that galvanize voters like Iraq and military spending be downplayed? Will independent grassroots passions be dampened? Will citizens be turned into mere voter registration "targets" with nothing built for the long run? By comparison, the activist donor base of the Dean campaign, which has tapped into $9 million in contributions already, is built on an internet model of spontaneous volunteer energy.

An alternative model to reach younger voters is being planned by the League of Pissed Off Voters, initiated by Bill Wimsatt, hip-hop artist and author of the underground classic, "Bomb the Suburbs!" They hope to target swing states from January to October 2004 with a fired-up cadre of artists distributing a book called "How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office."

Having previously demonized Sista Soljah, the Democrats can be expected to avoid contact with these pissed-off hordes like a contagion. But how can a party locked in orthodoxies and factions create a meaningful plan for inspiring the younger generation? In Iowa, as elsewhere, I was told that the average rank-and-file Democratic Party activist was older than myself, and I am over twice the age when one is not to be trusted.

The progressive statewide conference heard from 25-year-old Taj Brown on the generation gap among activists. A hyper-energized field organizer for the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, Brown first was activated at age 8 by reciting Dr. King's "I have a dream" speech in schools and churches. He joined an NAACP chapter when he was 9. He gradually noticed that the movement activism of his forebears -- including Marion Wright Edelman and Julian Bond -- was being replaced by a caste of paid professional advocates who organized no one. Motivated by this insight, he has organized busloads carrying 4,000 New York City youth of color to participate in weeklong organizer training conferences at Alex Haley's former home, now a retreat center in Tennessee.

If the Party can sort out these organizing strategies to appeal to disenfranchised voters, there is also the dilemma of discovering a message beyond simply the intense craving to dump Bush. It is impossible to galvanize the Democratic base without an anti-establishment message based in the Democratic populist tradition. But populism doesn't sit well with the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council. With buzzwords that sound like a product marketing strategy, they insist that the Party be "positioned" in the "center."

But no candidate can be authentic if they require too much positioning, and the center is an infinitely ambiguous place. Judging by polls, it is safely centrist to call for regulation of corporate behavior, but the DLC denounces such sensible messages as "class warfare" that will erase the Party's carefully cultivated pro-business image. It is safely centrist to call for labor and environmental protections to be included in trade agreements, but the DLC complains that would be "isolationist."

To raise questions about the Iraq war would be reasonably centrist, but the DLC feels that would raise the "specter" of '60s protestors. Instead the DLC proposes something called "muscular internationalism," which sounds like Donald Rumsfeld on steroids. To be against urban sprawl and pollution would interfere with the DLC's unexplained "pro-growth" agenda. Howard Dean, the centrist governor of Vermont, is attacked by the DLC for taking the Party too far "left." If the DLC has its way, the grassroots of the Democratic Party will be prohibited from its passions, leaving the Party to become essentially the Democratic wing of the Republican Party.

Someone needs to call a time out and mediate the war between the DLC, Dean and the party's ground forces.

Even if Democrats can negotiate these shoals and produce a credible, populist, anti-Bush ticket and "progressive centrist" platform, there is one further challenge that the party is unwilling to acknowledge and face: Ralph Nader is planning to run for president as a Green.

Nader plans to enter the race after Dennis Kucinich falters, showing the alleged futility of reforming the Democratic Party. Nader will attract thousands of activists and perhaps 2-3 percent of the vote. If the Democrats flounder anyway, and fall 10 points behind Bush, the Nader factor won't matter. But in a close race, Nader's 2-3 percent would make a Democratic victory difficult, if not impossible.

No one I met in Iowa, and few people anywhere else, have been talking about this challenge, as if denial will make it disappear. Among major Democrats, only Jesse Jackson has raised it in a speech, briefly appealing to Nader for unity at a Washington "Take Back America" conference several weeks ago.

Since 2000, Democrats generally have blamed Nader for getting Bush elected and ruining the country. But as a party, Democrats have never looked in the mirror to analyze how their move to the right, their embrace of corporate money, and abuse of their liberal base helped create the space that allowed the rise of Nader and the Green Party. In fact, when Al Gore made a reversion to populism in his convention acceptance speech, he was blamed by the DLC (and the establishment media) for jeopardizing his campaign with rhetoric of "class war," as if the New Deal was the Russian Revolution.

Democrats have to face reality and understand that if they move too far to the right, millions of voters will defect or vote for third-party candidates. Democrats have to swallow hard and accept the right of the Green Party and Ralph Nader to exist and compete. Or does the DLC and the Party's fund-raising hierarchy intend to push more progressives into the Greens? How then will they win elections?

At the same time, Nader and the Greens need a reality check. The notion that the two major parties are somehow identical may be a rationale for building a third party, but it insults the intelligence of millions of blacks, Latinos, women, gays, environmentalists and trade unionists who can't afford the indulgence of Republican rule. The Green claim that the Nader vote made no difference between Gore and Bush in 2000 (because the Nader voters were all new voters, or wouldn't have voted otherwise) is exaggerated at the least.

Surely there is a way for the Greens and Democrats to find common ground before the next election. The mediating pressure may have to arise from the rank-and-file of both parties if their leaders are too frozen in their positions. The Democrats would have to stop trying to destroy the Greens, and instead reflect much of the Nader agenda in their platform, in an effort to compete for Green and disaffected voters. Nader and the Greens would have to join a united front in defeating Bush and the neo-conservatives in 2004, perhaps by Nader supporting the Democratic candidate in states where the election will be too close to call. Long-term ways could be considered to break the monopoly of the two-party system while avoiding an advantage to the Republicans.

But no one seems to be pondering these alternatives, much less initiating dialogue. When I huddled with some Kucinich organizers in Iowa, I ventured an opinion that Nader would run again. Oh no, they said, Nader's not running, and he's urging his supporters to vote for Dennis. So I rephrased the question: but if Kucinich loses in the first primaries, don't you think Ralph will run? Oh yes, they answered.

Why the apparent contradiction? Politics demands a certain simplifying and compartmentalizing of loyalties perhaps. But if there ever was a year to think outside the box, it may be 2004.

Tom Hayden is a progressive activist, author and former California elected official. His most recent book is "Irish on the Inside."


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