If you really want to understand what’s at stake in the race for the 52nd Congressional District between Scott Peters and Lori Saldaña, the most important thing to consider is not personality conflicts or whether the candidates get along with the media but which wing of the Democratic Party they would represent. Both want to unseat incumbent Republican Brian Bilbray, but whose interests would each candidate serve? What kind of Democratic Party would they help shape?
As has been noted elsewhere in the OB Rag, Saldaña has the backing of many local and national progressives and would certainly head straight into the Progressive Caucus. This is the most liberal caucus in the House and describes itself thusly:
Our Caucus members promote a strong, progressive agenda, what we call “The Progressive Promise–Fairness for All”. The Progressive Promise is rooted in four core principles that embody national priorities and are consistent with the values, needs and aspirations of all the American people, not just the powerful and the privileged. They reflect a fundamental belief in government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
The four, core principles of the Progressive Promise:
1. Fighting for economic justice and security for all;
2. Protecting and preserving our civil rights and civil liberties;
3. Promoting global peace and security; and
4. Advancing environmental protection and energy independence.
Scott Peters, on the other hand, has been endorsed by the New Democrat Coalition (NDC). As the San Diego Union-Tribune reported after Saldaña received the Progressive Change Campaign endorsement:
Meanwhile, Peters recently secured the support of the New Democrat Coalition, a group of 42 House members that seeks to promote a “common-sense” Democratic agenda focusing on job creation, education reform and energizing the national economy.
But this bland-seeming description doesn’t give the reader any real context about the New Democrat Coalition and it is doubtful that many readers or even life-long Democrats or those in labor know much about this group. For a historical perspective, a recent ProPublica story sums them up nicely:
The New Democrat Coalition was formed as a House caucus in 1997, following in the footsteps of the Democratic Leadership Council [DLC] and President Bill Clinton’s “third way” policies designed to make Democrats and their platform more business friendly. When launched, the group lacked a fundraising PAC and had no legislative staffers. However, they did have allies at the highest levels of the Democratic Party and access to the party’s political and fundraising machine.
The New Democrats were as pro-business then as they are now. Many of the group’s members, including Kind and Crowley, supported the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed marquee financial legislation passed after the Great Depression and paved the way for financial institutions to become “too big to fail.” A year later, many also voted for the Commodities Futures Modernization Act, which curtailed regulation of financial derivatives, including the products that played a major role in the collapse of energy firm Enron in 2001 and helped to bring the world economy to the brink of disaster in 2008.
Though the driving force behind both bills was Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican who left Congress just after their passage to lobby for the Swiss bank UBS, they were pushed hard by Clinton administration officials like Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, signed into law by Clinton, and supported by congressional groups like the New Democrats.
So, as I noted a few weeks ago in my column about “The Problem with Liberals,” the DLC and its NDC offspring are part of a movement to push the Democratic Party away from economic liberalism to a business friendly cultural liberalism:
Eric Alterman clearly hits the nail on the head with his observations about the replacement of economic liberalism with cultural liberalism in the Democratic Party, but his insightful analysis doesn’t go far enough to note how thorough and deep the transformation has become since the nineties when the Clinton presidency moved the whole party away from the old Labor-Democratic coalition that had prevailed since the thirties.
Indeed the great success of the now defunct Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) was to move the Democrats to the “center” in a myriad of ways—the complete embrace of NAFTA, welfare reform, and a nearly total adoption of neoliberal economic policies.
At the time, critics like Jesse Jackson called the DLC “the Democratic Leisure Class” but this largely fell on deaf ears. Even the landslide congressional election defeat that Clinton suffered in ‘94 did little to chasten him as he continued to out-maneuver the Republicans who fumed with evermore venom about the extreme liberals in the White House even as the Clinton team was doing all it could to transform the Democratic Party into a culturally liberal, economically neoliberal party that differed little from the Republicans on economic matters.
Thus what the folks in the New Democrat Coalition are interested in doing is unmooring the Democratic Party from its economic populist roots so that the mainstream of the party will all be good “Republicrats” who won’t scare away the big money that is the mother’s milk of their “soulless” and “corporatist” agenda, as Ralph Nadar has characterized it. Sadly, it’s just as important to understand the conservative ideological and financial networks inside the contemporary Democratic Party as it is study the right-wing think tank network that has spawned folks like Carl DeMaio. Once you make those connections, you really see what plutocracy looks like. As Dennis Keith Yergler explains, the New Democrats’ effort to move the party to the right has been well-funded by the Fortune 500 from the beginning:
Over the coming years the corporate contributors to the DLC read like a “Who’s Who” of Corporate America. As Nichols writes, “Those corporate contributors … include(d) Bank One, Citigroup, Dow Chemical, DuPont, General Electric, the Health Insurance Corporation of America, Merrill Lynch, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, the National Association of Mortgage Brokers, Occidental Petroleum, Raytheon, and much of the rest of the Fortune 500.” In the words of Ralph Nader, the DLC had become “rooted in their philosophy of turn-your-back-on-organized labor and open-your-pockets-to-corporations.” More pointedly, the author Kenneth Baer, in his book Reinventing Democrats, concluded that the DLC had become nothing more than “an elite organization funded by elite-corporate and private-donors.”
So, if you like the sell-out Dems who helped kill the public option, embraced draconian corporate education reform, and promoted trade deals that have made multi-nationals rich while speeding the race to the bottom for American workers, then you’ll love the New Democrats.
If you like the National Democratic Party that is keeping the battle for the survival of labor in Wisconsin at arm’s length, the New Democrats are your people.
How about taking on Wall Street and the 1% in the service of Main Street America? Think again; the New Democrats are carrying water for the plutocrats at every opportunity. As Jane White put it in her Huffington Post blog “How Some Democrats Sold Their Soul to the 1%” :
The only thing worse than watching your country go down the toilet is discovering that a band of Democrats is doing most of the flushing. Wonder why we haven’t had genuine financial services reform? The blame falls on a group called the New Democrat Coalition, members of Congress who have sold their souls to the business lobby in exchange for generous campaign contributions and future jobs as lobbyists — call it “The K Street Project, Part Blue.”
According to the New York Times, ProPublica calls the NDC “a group of 69 lawmakers whose close relationship with several hundred Washington lobbyists makes them one of the most successful money machines since the K Street Project collapsed.”
Eight of the top 13 Democratic House recipients of Wall Street cash are NDC members. The NDC pressured former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark) to scale back a proposal that would force big banks to spin off their derivatives businesses and battled against requiring that banks offer fixed-rate, not just adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs), according to a 2009 article in CongressDaily. . . . Where are the Democratic White Knights — or the True Blues — who will come to the country’s rescue?
Here’s hoping that the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a 75-member group of liberal House Democrats, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, will have a significant impact replacing sellout Dems with fellow progressives in the next election. Among their priorities, the Progressive Caucus seeks to “export more American products, not American jobs,” a practice that was exacerbated by China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, which the New Democrat Coalition favored. While nobody wants to deprive any nation of economic expansion it should not come at the cost of other countries.
Upon accepting the New Democrat Coalition’s endorsement Scott Peters said:
“Voters are tired of political extremists who make a lot of noise, but can’t build consensus and get things done. That’s what they’d get by electing Brian Bilbray or the other Democrat in this race. Particularly during times of economic uncertainty, the voters are eager for reasonable, common-sense leaders who put jobs and people first and partisan politics last.”
Of course the real question is what is it that voters want to “get done”? If the mythological post partisan world that Peters is referring to is the same one occupied by the New Democrat Coalition, then it’s the utopia of the 1% where we have, as Noam Chomsky puts it, “two wings of the business party.” Hence Peters’ squishy positions on the living wage locally and Medicare and Social Security at the national level are predictable. For a Business Dem like Peters, everything is always “on the table.” Only “extremists” like Saldaña would seek to hold the line against any cuts to those programs.
Indeed, Peters’ use of the term “extremist” when describing Saldaña is all any progressive voter needs to hear to vote against him. This ongoing attempt by conservative Democrats to reject progressives inside the party as somehow outside of the acceptable range of opinion is a kind of soft McCarthyism that has long been part of the New Democrats’ stock-in-trade. It’s both offensive and politically corrosive. And the notion that all we need is for some slick talking character to show up and “build consensus” is beyond ridiculous. The problem the Democrats have is not being too “extreme;” it’s caving in to the right on what should be core principles, again and again.
Big money and glossy ads aside, Peters and his friends in the New Democrat Coalition represent what is wrong with the Democratic Party. When you can’t get decent healthcare reform passed, end the endless Bush wars, stop rotten trade deals, reverse crappy Bush Administration education policy, pass the Employee Free Choice Act, or even put real checks back into the financial system no less punish the people who pushed the economy off a cliff, you have not just the filibuster-happy Republicans, but also the New Democrats, like Joe Lieberman et al, to thank for it. They have thrown progressives under the bus and stymied real change time after time. If you want someone with this neoliberal country club’s stamp of approval, Scott Peters is your man.
Why are many of my progressive friends inside and outside of labor siding with Peters? Other than the usual personal conflicts that seem to pervade all things political, the answer is they thought they were betting on a winner. The logic was that in a suburban swing district, only a business Democrat could knock out Bilbray. Plus Peters is rich and can outspend Saldaña. But a funny thing happened on the way to the June primary, Saldaña seems to be kicking Peters’ butt with the latest poll showing her burying him and running neck and neck with Bilbray.
So, perhaps it’s time get behind the clear progressive choice rather than championing a new Democrat and strengthening a coalition that is an obstacle to real change inside the Democratic Party and in the country as a whole.