Take a Chair, Any Chair

Only a small group on either side of the ideological spectrum actually participates in politics. Among them, two big partisan fights will play out in the coming months. In these battles, you'll be able to see the problem that American liberalism faces today, especially in its tenuous influence on D.C. party politics. The right will be battling hard to shape the Republican agenda while the left gets distracted by fights within the Democratic Party over how best to retool after another defeat.

You see it in the attention paid to the skirmish over who will succeed Terry McAuliffe as DNC Chair. Democrats are once again searching for a new face to head their party until they select a standard-bearer who, without a major vision overhaul, will lead them to ignominious defeat in 2006 and 2008 – it's like a rite of spring renewal. The nascent liberal base is dying to push Howard Dean, who galvanized the left by trying to inject some spine into the Democratic Party during his candidacy. The major liberal political blogs are already abuzz with rumors about it; Dailykos has speculated on it and My Due Diligence of Politics has a Howard Dean for DNC campaign.

The best gossip is going on in rather closed circles: ABC News' The Note and the National Journal's Hotline ($6,000 annual subscription required). And you can get the three-day old gossip on the cable networks. Following this stuff, you'll learn that Harold Ickes, former Clinton deputy chief of staff would be favored by Bill and Hillary. Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack was a leading contender until dropping out earlier last week. Maybe former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb or former New Hampshire Governor Jeanne Shaheen – backed by John Kerry – will get the nod. Gore campaign manager Donna Brazille, Virginia Governor (and 2008 presidential contender) Mark Warner, and the New Democrat Network's Simon Rosenberg have all been mentioned as candidates.

So far, it looks to be a race between the corporate and liberal wings of the Democratic Party. Howard Dean is reported to have the backing of the progressive Internet groups and some labor organizations, which scares the bejesus out of the establishment Dems. If only they woke up and remembered what a DLC centrist he was in his 20 years of Vermont politics.

Congressman Robert Matsui (D-CA), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The Hill that Dean is too much of a gamble. "We need someone who is part of the Democratic establishment. Someone who is more of a known quantity. It's extremely important that we don't go through a debate about ideology," he said.

And while many wait with baited breath to see which wing will emerge victorious, it isn't clear how important ideology is in a DNC chair. Consultant Bob Mulholland, a member of both the DNC and the DLC, told me in a phone interview – after dancing around the ideology question for a while – that the job is all about organization and fundraising. "It's the 2008 nominee who will put his ideological imprint on the party," he said. "Most people can't even name the party chair, but if you get to 2008 and you have 25,000 e-mails and $25 dollars in the bank, what are you going to do?" But 2008 is four years away. And think of all the media appearances and lecture circuits that that Terry McAuliffe performed in the past four years. In those appearances, he spent a large portion of his time talking about day-to-day political issues facing Democrats in Washington and where the party stood.

Stepping back for a moment though, what is most puzzling about the DNC ritual is that anyone in the activist liberal base would waste their precious time and energy caring about it. While they may be dying to know the outcome, they'll have little impact on the process. The selection of DNC Chair defines a bright line between large and small 'd' democrats: the face of the people's party will be decided by 447 members of the Democratic National Committee in secret balloting. While those members are largely elected by their respective state and local parties, they are nonetheless a small, insular group of party insiders who live in a Washington political culture apart from the rest of America.

And it's a closed system; while anyone can become a candidate for Party chair, 20 established DNC members must back their run. Candidates have lobbied in the halls of Congress, at cocktail parties and, according to ABC news, during the opening of the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock last week. The millions of people who gave their time and money in vain during the election – leaving everything they had on the field – have little say in which way the party is headed. Yet the liberal political junkies continue to gaze with rapt attention at the proceedings.

Now, contrast that with what the right is doing during Washington's slow season. Having won the "most important election of our lifetime," social conservatives aren't resting on their laurels. Their leaders are calling for an Evangelical revolution, and they've found an issue around which they can keep their people mobilized: fighting a secular, rogue judiciary bent on re-writing the Constitution. The right's socially conservative base wants real activist judges credentialed by the leading lights of the strict constructionist set, and they're going to fight to get them come hell or high water.

That battle has heated up over Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) becoming head of the Senate Judiciary Committee and threatening to moderate the GOP's nominees. Facing down Specter is a coalition of 20 Evangelical Christian, conservative Catholic and Orthodox Jewish groups planning a nationwide day of demonstrations on December 9. They'll be camped outside senators' offices – both in DC and in their home states. Letter-writing campaigns and phone banks have been in full swing. Hard-core conservative activists like direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie are giving their all to the push. Viguerie told me in an interview that "conservatives have been biting their tongues and going along for the sake of the re-election. Now there's a feeling that we put in all this effort and it's time to work on our agenda. There is a lot of pent up pressure and stress about our issues." The most powerful faction of the right's base is turning that pressure around on their party.

William Greene, the founder of Rightmarch.com, a website dedicated to conservative activism, told me that his site alone had funneled 155,000 faxes to conservative senators. "I think they were bowled over by the response and didn't know what to do with it," Greene said. "The Senate has their traditions, their old boys' network, their rules and they're not used to that kind of outside pressure."

An un-named Republican Senator told the Washington Times that the 1,000 phone calls his office received in one day was the most since the Senate debated the Federal Marriage Amendment. Judiciary Committee member Lindsay Graham (R-SC) said at a news conference that his office had received more calls from concerned citizens than at any time since the Clinton impeachment. Remember, these are the people who just won the election.

Those squeaky wheels apparently weren't enough to block Specter's appointment, but it wasn't a loss for the movement. According to Rightmarch's Greene, "without that pressure Specter would have just waltzed right in and he wouldn't have been beholden to anyone. But because the Senate was overwhelmed by the grassroots response we won't have a rogue liberal Republican senator who can do anything he wants. Instead, we'll have a liberal Republican senator who has been so thoroughly chastised that he was forced to sign a document pledging to toe the line."

So the right's activist base is busy getting things done. And we, once again, turn to a national leadership that's so busy navel-gazing and avoiding an ideological debate that it is unable to offer a compelling alternative to an extreme conservative agenda and too spineless to get in there and fight the dirty, no-holds-barred brawl this country's polity demands.

It's time for liberals to lead and the Democratic Party bosses to either follow or get the hell out of the way. Where is our liberal ideology? Who is funneling all that election energy into a renewed opposition to the war in Iraq? Who is in charge of spending the next wave of money for the 2006 mid-term elections? Who is organizing a push back against the right-wing fringe's all-out assault on the judiciary?

Conservatives have learned that national parties do not have a character of their own but are vehicles by which savvy players can push their agendas into the public sphere. And they deliver thunder and lightning to the Republicans who stand in their way. Until liberals learn that lesson and create a national movement independent of the Democrats, they will be unable to exert influence over the party's platform. And until they start a conversation about ideology, we can look forward to loss after loss by the party of the slightly less destructive platform, regardless of whom its new chairman is.


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