Big Money vs. Grassroots: The Fight For the Heart of the Democratic Party

Editor’s Note: David Sirota is an occasional contributor to these pages and the author of a recent bestseller, Hostile Takeover, about the big money corruption that is perverting our democratic system of government. With the prospects good for the Democrats to regain control of at least one chamber of Congress, come November, Sirota says there is a tug-of-war under way for the soul of the party. On one side are Washington insiders, beholden to big money, who seek power for its own sake; on the other are some courageous legislators and the party rank and file, who want a government that serves the needs of average Americans.Sirota has served as a spokesman for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee and was a top strategist for Democrat Brian Schweitzer’s successful 2004 gubernatorial run in Montana. He is the co-chair of the Progressive States Network, which provides research and advocacy tools to progressive state legislators.

Every two years since 1992, the Democratic Party has trotted out Fleetwood Mac’s classic “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” as the theme song of its campaign. Now, after the party’s repeated election losses, polls suggest that the Democrats’ “tomorrow” could finally be dawning. November 7 is the big day. Yet even if the Democrats do well on that day, it’s not clear that things will change. In fact, there are ominous signs that a Democratic Congress would cause another song to start ringing in Americans’ ears: The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” with its harrowing line: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”To be sure, a change in congressional leadership would slow the advance of President George W. Bush’s dangerous agenda. And as the Associated Press has reported, the specific Democratic lawmakers in line to take over key committees are among the administration’s biggest critics, and among the most ideologically progressive in Congress.But beyond this, there are troubling signs that the party isn’t serious about reforming America’s money-dominated politics. Many working-class swing voters are still suspicious of a Democratic Party that promised not to sell them out, and then supported President Clinton’s alliance with big business to pass economically destabilizing “free trade” deals. But that doesn’t seem to matter to the Beltway’s Democratic elites. That voters would be supporting Democrats in 2006 with the specific expectation of reform hardly seems to register with many of the party’s Washington insiders.The arrogance is stunning. Here you have a national political party righteously hammering its opponents’ “culture of corruption.” Here you have a national party standing at the threshold of an Internet revolution that has shown itself more than capable of democratizing political fundraising by taking in huge sums of money, in small contributions, all without the usual expectation of cronyish legislative favors. And yet here is that same national party bragging to reporters that it is focused on doing everything it can to milk the corporate teat as effectively as Republicans.

FOLLOW THE MONEY—“Democrats’ Stock Is Rising on K Street” blared a recent Washington Post story detailing moves by former Democratic lawmakers and staff to cash in as corporate lobbyists. “Corporate Contributions Shift to the Left,” read an earlier Wall Street Journal story about how “big companies are boosting their share of campaign contributions to Democrats.”This trend is undoubtedly pleasing party leaders like House minority whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD). Until he was criticized for doing so, Hoyer proudly posted a Roll Call story on his official taxpayer-sponsored website, headlined “Hoyer’s Own K Street Project,” about how he was starting a fund-raising operation to shake down corporate lobbyists for cash. Those efforts likely benefited from the services of one Gina Mahoney, who according to the National Journal“does double duty” for Hoyer, serving both as his senior legislative adviser and as his political fund-raising entity’s chief “liaison to K Street and the business community.” Such “liaising” might explain why, following the indictment of lobbyist-manipulator Jack Abramoff last year, Hoyer made sure he was featured in The Hill newspaper reassuring the corporate community that he “has sought to make himself the first contact for K Street” and that he would continue holding regular meetings with their lobbyists.
There are a few truisms in life: the sky is blue, water is wet, and politicians of both parties deny they are influenced in any way by campaign contributions. Republican Senator Mike DeWine (OH), confirming this principle, recently told his local paper: “We receive thousands and thousands of contributions, and to think that those contributions influence how I vote is just absurd—it’s just crazy.” Such denials only show how the culture of corruption has become downright pathological.Corruption on the part of Republicans is somewhat well tolerated in the country. Despite comedic denials from people like DeWine, the GOP does not usually make a real effort to pretend it is anything other than corporate America’s personal sidearm whose barrel is aimed squarely between the eyes of America’s middle class. Republicans may justify their incessant selling-out with their “What’s Good for Corporate America is Good for America” slogan, but it’s only the “Corporate America” part that is of interest to them, and most everybody knows it.Such behavior from Democrats is more troubling. At the same time that leading Democrats have been publicly berating the GOP for corruption, they have been privately ramping up their own corporate fund-raising operations, and large numbers of Democratic lawmakers have provided the critical votes to pass some of big business’s most sought-after prizes. The energy bill, the bankruptcy bill, the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the class-action “reform” bill—all of these were written by the industries they benefit, and all required the support of key Democratic legislators in order to pass.

A “BUSINESS AS USUAL” STRATEGY—Democrats have made strides in addressing the criticism that their style, tone and language make them appear to look down on voters. But now, with polls showing Republican approval ratings plummeting, some in Washington’s Democratic circles seem to be looking at the last year and a half and gleaning a lesson that most directly insults voters: that Democrats can say one thing, do another, and still win elections. That might explain why Democratic Party politicians and insiders are more openly talking out of both sides of their mouths.Consider the recent New York Times article about Democratic presidential candidates’ demanding a crackdown on Wal-Mart’s anti-worker policies and generally embracing more progressive economic positions. The article teems with populist rhetoric, but buried at the end is this key line: “Some Democrats expressed concern about the direction the party was heading in, saying it could turn back efforts by such party leaders as former President Bill Clinton to erase the image of the party as anti-business and scare off corporations that might be inclined to make contributions.”That sentence is no accident. In Washington, where every word is parsed, where every phrase is packaged, every message has a target audience. In this case, the target was corporate lobbyists, and the message from Democrats was, “Don’t worry—it will be business as usual.”Another recent New York Times piece was laced with similar “business as usual” reassurances, these coming from Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY). The story documented how the former First Lady, who made her name pushing comprehensive health-care reform, has been “receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from doctors, hospitals, drug manufacturers and insurers.” In all, she is now the second largest recipient of health-industry cash in Congress.Publicly, Clinton postures as a courageous reformer—an important profile at a time when polls show the public is running out of patience and ranks health care as a top concern. But to her political paymasters, she presents a very different image. In a speech to the Federation of American Hospitals, Clinton all but apologized for trying to fix the health-care system during her husband’s first term, telling the audience, “We tried to do too much too fast 12 years ago.” Left unsaid by Clinton—but probably not unheard by the audience—was a soothing message that Democratic congressional victories will not result in any real boat rocking.Clinton’s is savvy enough to keep her corporate fealty from being thrown squarely in the public’s face. The same cannot be said of her colleague Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT)—a politician who at one moment sententiously poses as a moral and principled man of the people, and at the next holds forth at lavish banquets to thank corporate America for underwriting his political campaigns.Days before Connecticut’s Democratic primary, in August, in which Lieberman ran against businessman Ned Lamont, the Hartford Courant reported that “big givers crammed a room at the Washington Court hotel . . . to salute and contribute money to their old friend, Joe Lieberman.” The most telling speech at the event came from a former Lieberman chief of staff, Michael Lewan; he had gone on to become an Enron lobbyist and a fund-raiser for Connecticut Republican governor John Rowland—the same John Rowland who resigned in disgrace to do jail time on corruption charges. Lewan told the audience, “The Washington lawyers and lobbyists in those rooms will come back for Joe Lieberman. Who knows what Lamont would be like?”
TRUE DEMOCRACY RIDICULED—Rest assured, the workings of democracy can ensure that, if victorious, the Democratic Party makes good on its campaign promises of real change. But rest assured also that hostility to democracy is quite pronounced among both Washington’s bipartisan media outlets and the political elite.In the wake of Ned Lamont’s victory in Connecticut, and Joe Lieberman’s decision not to quit the race, the New York Times columnist David Brooks—the D.C. Democrats’ favorite Republican—applauded Lieberman for “explain[ing] why polarized primary voters shouldn’t be allowed to define the choices in American politics.” Yes, that’s right—a columnist for America’s paper of record cheered the idea of not allowing American voters to decide political issues.A few weeks later, Peter Beinart penned an article in the New Republic entitled “The Ned Scare” (so much for subtlety when it comes to red-baiting). The piece celebrated a Lieberman ally, the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), as “an organization of politicians that believes the less beholden politicians are to grassroots activists, the better they will represent voters as a whole.”Beinart, of course, has become a walking contradiction. He spent the months before the Iraq War berating Democrats for not supporting the invasion; then rescinded his support after the war went bad; then published a book, this year, attacking Democrats for not being more pro-war. Over the course of it, he has been one of the leading voices justifying the Iraq War, on the grounds that it would create a more democratic Middle East. Yet here he was after the Connecticut primary cheering the DLC’s anti-democratic view that the less beholden our representatives are to politically engaged voters, the better off America will be.Nonetheless, his characterization of the DLC is accurate. It was the DLC’s president, Al From, who in 2001 said that his goal was to give Democrats “a game plan to try to contain the populism.” Populism, you may recall, is defined as “supporting the rights and powers of the common people in their struggle with the privileged elite.” Al From has made that vision a reality. The DLC—which has been funded by the likes of Chevron, Enron, Merck and Philip Morris—has, until recently, been extremely effective at pressuring Democrats to ignore the will of the public and capitulate to big business’s demands. The DLC has also made a public spectacle of itself by berating Democratic candidates who actually stand up for ordinary people.

PUTTING THE “MOCK” IN DEMOCRACY—To be sure, the DLC never openly admits its objectives, or even its funding sources. Instead, it bills itself as quasi grassroots, holding so-called “national conversations” in an effort to create the impression that its corporate-written agenda has some semblance of public support.Yet the media coverage of its most recent such “conversation,” in Denver this past July, tells the real story. The New York Sun noted that the meeting focused on pondering “how to counter the netroots”—i.e., how to counter the millions of grassroots Democratic Party voters who use the Internet to advocate for a more democratic political system. Perhaps most telling of all was the Rocky Mountain News‘s note that the DLC’s supposed “national conversation” at the Hyatt Regency Hotel was, in fact, “not open to the public.”In an August Rolling Stone column, reporter Matt Taibbi recounted his interview with one DLC leader, who called anti-war activists “narrow dogmatists.” Taibbi pointed out that recent Gallup polls have shown that fully 91 percent of Democrats support a withdrawal from Iraq, and he asked the DLC leader to explain this contradiction. “So these hundreds of thousands of Democrats who are against the war are narrow dogmatists?” Taibbi asked. “We have thirty corporate-funded spokesmen telling hundreds of thousands of actual voters that they’re narrow dogmatists?”As Taibbi wrote in a follow-up article, “There is a schism within the party, one that pits ‘party insiders’ steeped in the inside-baseball muck of Washington money culture against . . . well, against us, the actual voters.”It is this schism between Democratic Party insiders and small-d democrats that the public is told to stop talking about, out of respect for the bigger goal of winning back Congress. Yet, it is this very schism that makes all the difference between whether a Democratic Congress means a truly democratic Congress, and thus real change for America, or whether it merely means fancier offices for a different set of politicians on Capitol Hill.