from the pages of November 1996


The Clinton Fiasco

Barbara Ehrenreich


There's a phantom limb attached to the body politic, where ordinarily a left wing would be found. It manifests itself with the occasional twitch: CEOs earning over 200 times as much as their subalterns? Sinking incomes for the working poor, topped off by drastic welfare and Food Stamps cuts? Something's very wrong here, the more liberal pundits mutter to themselves. Too bad there isn't a left any more --if only to remind us of what.

Ordinarily, when media outlets like the New York Times report the absence of an American left, the correct response is: We only look dead because you buried us. Last spring, for example, that august newspaper reported a near-total lack of protest over the looming horror of welfare "reform," but it was a lack that had been greatly magnified by the Times' own failure to report on any of the protests that did occur. FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) has doggedly documented the media's suppression and exclusion of the American left. In a political culture where a Michael Kinsley or a Bill Press can play a leftist on TV, where labor reporting is relegated to the business section of the news, where Hillary Clinton can be mistaken for a liberal -- it's easy enough to argue that the disappearance of the left is another of those clever special effects.

But that argument only goes so far. As recently as five years ago, it was possible to discern an American left without recourse to a microscope. Recall, just as one measure of a detectable left, the mass demonstrations of the eighties -- pro-choice, pro-labor, pro-disarmament, and (in 1990 and 91) anti-war. Contrast these to some of the great assemblages of recent years: There was the Million Man March, in which black men solemnly "atoned" for their sins against the family. Or there was Marian Wright Edelman's "Stand With Children" demonstration, which decried drive-by shootings while remaining tactfully silent about the coming destruction of welfare. You don't have to be a forensic pathologist to realize that the death blow fell in roughly 1992.

When Clinton was first elected, progressives argued that, sure, he was a scumball opportunist who had ascended from Arkansas still dripping with the Tyson chicken shit which flavors that state's waters. But we could influence him, even "hold him accountable." The great thing about opportunists, as opposed to genuine ideologues, is that they can be swayed, and, with enough pressure from the constituencies (feminist, minority, etc.) that had helped to elect him, Clinton would sway our way. To use the word beloved by departed socialist Michael Harrington, Clinton gave us an "opening."

But it turned out to be a very narrow opening, accessible only to a few, and leading to an abrupt dead end. True, a number of people who could be construed as part of the broad American left were suddenly invited in and out of the cold. Maya Angelou got to read her celebration of diversity at the inauguration. Michael Lerner and Cornell West were invited to expound their views in the White House. Naomi Wolfe (who is despite her recent backsliding on abortion, a recognizable feminist) was solicited for her ideas on how to appeal to women. Heather Booth, a leading socialist-feminist of the 70s, was hired to promote the Clinton health plan.

Environmentalists, labor people, gays, and feminists all succumbed to the notion that they had a friend -- albeit a notoriously unreliable one -- in the White House. As a lesbian elected official, who might have been speaking for any other progressive constituency, told the Progressive's Ruth Coniff:


We never had access to a White House before in the entire history of the United States. No one would even let us in the door. Yes, he's screwed up on a couple of issues that matter a lot, but there is this feeling that we can go to the White House and talk about it ... That access ... is extremely important.

I saw the stupefying effects of "access" close up when, in early 1996, members of my welfare defense group, the Women's Committee of 100, were invited, along with leaders of other feminist groups, to meet with Leon Panetta in the White House. For a fleeting moment, we felt we had actually done something: Met with Panetta! In the White House! And he was really listening!

How else to explain the self-abasement of progressives at the 1996 Democratic convention except by invoking the seductive powers of "access"? Sadistically, Clinton signed the Republican welfare bill ending a 60-year commitment to the indigent on the very eve of the convention. But no one on the "responsible" left went to Chicago to protest (the irresponsible left was represented by Dave Dellinger and Abbie Hoffman's son, who managed to provoke a few nostalgic arrests.) No one walked out of the convention; no one even used his or her podium op to threaten Clinton-Gore with some fire next time. Instead, our erstwhile progressive leaders indulged in the kind of gestures known in the animal world as rites of submission: Jesse Jackson recommended "smiling through the tears." Gloria Steinem weirdly credited Clinton's signing of the welfare bill with "bring[ing] the spotlight to this issue."

Access is of course not a credible carrot to the average rank-and-file person-of-the-left, who is about as likely to lunch at the White House -- or speak at a convention -- as to fly without the aid of an airplane. But the sycophancy of the progressive leadership seeps down to the membership in the form of a cynical fatalism. When feminist leaders, for example, denounce Clinton in one breath and urge us to vote for him in the next, the message to women is: Why do anything? Clinton sucks, but we're bound to him in serf-like fealty by the threat of the dread Newt-Dole.

But would a Newt-Dole -- or, if we could replay 92, a Bush-Newt -- really be such a bad thing for this country? Not if such a regime could help the left preserve a little muscle tone. Bush, as has been observed, would probably not have gotten away with the welfare bill. He would have faced a far more militant trade union resistance to NAFTA. And if he had tried to re-bomb poor old battered Baghdad just to gain a few percentage points in the polls, there might have been some running in the streets. At least, with a Republican president, there would be no worry about miffing the man in with the Oval office.

The irony -- and there is always an irony to make a bitter pill harder to swallow -- is that access without threats is about as potent in today's political world as a Dukakis bumper sticker. Leon Panetta might or might not have been listening to my friends' arguments about welfare, but what he and his colleagues were undoubtedly listening for is any hint that there would be a price to pay, in political terms, if Clinton signed the bill. It isn't the brilliance of the argument that impresses a hardened pol, but the risk of disruption and mass defections. Progressives who can be depended on to remain passively acquiescent and content with their crumbs of access don't have to be listened to at all.

If our progressive leaders, the ones who ate humble pie in Chicago, can be said to have a strategy, it is to re-elect Clinton -- then slam him hard. Bob Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America's Future, says that after Clinton wins, "it's big fight time." But will we have any fight left in us? At the moment, the labor movement is pouring $35 million into the fall elections; feminist organizations are busy, as in 92, getting out the vote. Which is fine, except all this represents money and energy that is not going into union organizing or old-fashioned grass-roots feminist organizing. What we need is militant mass movements that can make the powerful sit up and pay attention. But what we seem to be working for, as usual, is a tiny sliver of gratitude from on high.

The left will revive some time in the next four years only by overcoming the fantasy of access. We no more have a friend in the White House than we have a fairy godmother, and, even if we did, he would be responsive only to the extent that we could threaten him with the strength of our numbers. So the big question is not whether one votes for Clinton or not (I won't.) The big question is how to go about building a movement strong enough so that we never have to settle for a "friend" like this again.