Every presidential election since 1980 has had a Bush or a Clinton on a major party ticket. And the pundits say we're likely to see a Clinton atop the next Democratic ticket.
Unlike the last seven presidential elections, I dream of a 2008 contest that is Bush- and Clinton-free. Our country needs new leadership and fresh ideas beyond the realm of just two families.
Of course, influential political families are as old as the Republic. Our nation's first vice president and second president was an Adams; his son was our sixth president. A Republican Roosevelt dominated U.S. politics at the turn of the 20th century; a Democratic Roosevelt, his distant cousin, was even more dominant decades later (joined by our country's greatest first lady, a Roosevelt by birth as well as marriage, who toiled for human rights for years thereafter.) Then came the '60s and the brothers Kennedy... but both John and Robert were killed before the age of 47.
Those earlier eras were marked by hope or social progress. By contrast, the Bush-Clinton era is marked in many respects by political regress and decline. And as major national problems fester, neither Team Bush nor Team Clinton are willing to seriously address them.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not in any way equating the Clintonites with the extremists in today's White House. No one comes close to Bush recklessness and fecklessness. But I believe that until we sweep away the Bush-Clinton era and transcend narrow Bush-Clinton debates (and non-debates), we won't be able to put our country back on the road to social progress.
In the last couple decades -- as power has passed from Bush to Clinton to Bush -- we've seen major problems worsen.
CORPORATE POWER -- Much of our economy, including healthcare and media, is in the grip of a shrinking number of giant amoral corporations. This power grab was not a natural process but the direct result of conscious decisions made, often corruptly, in Washington -- like President Clinton's Telecommunications Act of 1996, a bigger gift to the Rupert Murdochs and Clear Channels and Sinclairs than any George W. Bush was able to muster. Even as exciting new technologies allow for greater competition and decentralization, both Clintons and Bushes have favored the media goliaths. (In that context, Hillary Clinton's recent romance with Darth Murdoch is not a huge surprise.)
The corporatization of healthcare has been accomplished by insurance giants who've built one of the biggest and most wasteful bureaucracies in the world. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton's proposed reform in 1993 would have rewarded the largest private insurers; it buried the obvious solution -- non-bureaucratic national health insurance, which was endorsed by 100 members of Congress, physicians, labor unions, Consumers Union, et al.
Americans across the political spectrum tell pollsters that big business has too much power. Religious Right politicians have exploited sentiment against declining ethics, even as their policies in Washington foster corporate greed and amorality. But the Clintons, so webbed up with corporate power and donations (Hillary spent six years on Wal-Mart's board), are in no position to address this national problem.
CLIMATE CHANGE -- With our nation making up 5% of the world's population but producing 25% of the world's greenhouse gases, it would be nice to have a president at the forefront of the global effort to address the climate crisis. And one who saw renewable technologies as a spur to jobs and small business. But the Bush oiligarchy is obstructionist, flatly rejecting the Kyoto Climate Treaty -- after the Clinton administration had sought to weaken it. It's worth remembering that the Clinton White House steadfastly ignored environmentalists' calls to raise auto fuel efficiency standards. (As a senator, Al Gore had written powerfully about global warming -- but muted his voice for Team Clinton and his presidential run.)
POVERTY -- In our wealthy country, it took a hurricane and the racist neglect afterward to rediscover America's poor. Since the 1980s, government policy has done more to criminalize the poor than to lift them out of poverty. Money for prisons has been plentiful; money for proven anti-poverty programs has been scarce. Due largely to a racially-biased "drug war," our country's prison population grew during the Clinton years from 1.4 million to over 2 million -- many of whom were nonviolent drug offenders, poor and minority. The Florida recount fiasco of 2000 exposed the appalling reality that felony convictions had stripped three of ten black men in that state of their right to vote.
FOREIGN POLICY: Martin Luther King Jr. went to his grave opposing an immoral war based on lies and a costly, militaristic foreign policy. He envisioned a country known around the globe more for its helping hand than its slugging arm. Today, U.S. military spending is roughly equal to that of all other countries on the planet combined. Bush's disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq was supported by Hillary Clinton, who can muster only vague grousing over its execution. There is no difference today between Bush and Clinton policies on Israel, where uncritical, longstanding U.S. support for occupation of Palestinian land has produced intransigence and needless suffering on both sides -- and is a source of anti-Americanism easily exploited by Islamist extremists.
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Many Americans long for a strong presidential candidate in 2008 who will go beyond the tepid Bush-Clinton dialogue and chart a new course for our country -- including in foreign affairs. Aspiring Democrats who refuse to forcefully challenge a failed foreign policy in fear of being labeled "weak on defense" will fare no better than Kerry did. The backpedaling, "GOP-lite" strategy doesn't work.
Any Democrat who breaks from the Bush-Clinton consensus will become a target of mainstream media -- not just Fox News -- much like Howard Dean was in the weeks before the Iowa caucuses. If Al Gore steps out to run for president on a platform derived from his recent speeches on Iraq, foreign policy and Constitutional liberties, brace yourself for the spectacle of elite pundits straining to convince us that the man who was vice president for eight years is now irresponsibly leftish and "out of the mainstream."
Thankfully, corporate media and corporate money are no longer as crucial in determining the Democratic nominee. (Dean nearly succeeded in '04 with little of either.) That's because the last half-dozen years have seen near continuous growth in Internet organizing, independent media, and movements and coalitions for peace, global justice, fair trade, immigrants rights, media reform, etc. It would be smart politics for an '08 presidential contender to align with these coalitions -- smarter than the Clinton approach of wowing elite punditry by pushing away from activists and triangulating halfway between progressive Democrats and rightwing Republicans.
Among mainstream pundits, it's conventional wisdom that Bill Clinton and his centrist realpolitik saved the Democrats. But simple math tells us the opposite: Triangulation may have worked for Clinton personally (and for corporate backers seeking media consolidation and corporate-friendly trade deals like NAFTA), but far from saving the Democrats, the Clinton years represented a free fall for the party. When Clinton entered the White House, Democrats dominated the Senate, 57-43; the House, 258-176; the country's governorships, 30-18, and a large majority of state legislatures. By 2000, Republicans controlled the Senate, 55-45; the House, 222-211; governorships, 30-18, and almost half of state legislatures.
For Americans who want to turn our nation toward health, driving Bush-style extremism from the White House is essential. But it won't be enough to replace it with Clinton-style vacillation and triangulation.
Jeff Cohen (www.jeffcohen.org) is a former TV pundit and media critic. His latest book, Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media, will be available in September.
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