Tag Archives: Bill Clinton

Politics is a Battle for Position: More Thoughts on the Election

8 Nov

As relieved as I am about the outcome of the national elections, I can’t get the thought of how much we’ve lost in order to “win” out of out my mind. Something an old colleague of mine told me in the 1980s keeps popping into my head: politics is a battle for position.

What he meant by that, I think, is that political fights are won or lost based on how one is positioned vis a vis the public, and relative to one’s opponents. He told me that in order to help me wrap my then relatively inexperienced mind around the idea that fighting the religious right by calling them supremacist bigots was a losing strategy. To the mainstream, religious rightists looked like church-goers exercising their religious freedom and right to speech by protesting abortion and gay rights. To get folks to listen, we needed to pivot and talk about democratic values.

On Tuesday (in addition to deploying a tactically brilliant campaign), Barack Obama won re-election because the GOP blundered spectacularly in the battle for position.

For 50 years the GOP fought to reposition itself among voters as something other than the folks who brought you the Great Depression. They did so by placing their political fortunes in the hands of a coalition of radical factions whose most powerful appeal is among white males. That move was a winner. It positioned them to win the presidency for Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes. But, while conservative white males are still influential, that influence is declining. Romney losing on Tuesday with 59% of the white vote was a clear indication of that reality.

But, too late now. That right wing coalition the GOP built dominates the party’s presidential nomination process. That’s why right wing ideologues with no business working for government much less running for president like Michele Bachman, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum were each briefly GOP frontrunners. Moderate Mitt only won by turning sharply to the right (and being the only one with a real campaign).

And on Tuesday, we, or some version thereof, won. And yes, the influence of people of color, younger voters, and women in this election may be the first few rays of light indicating a new day dawning in American politics. Maybe.

However, there’s another side to this story. It goes something like this.

The GOP wedge strategy – their 50 year campaign of using controversial social issues to split liberal coalitions and push the left out of meaningful influence in politics – did succeed for a good long time. There were a few gaps along the way. The Watergate scandal gave us Carter, Ross Perot gave us Clinton in ’92, and the Iraq War and financial crisis gave us Obama.

The one legit presidential win for the Dems since Johnson was Clinton’s second term. Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 1992 and re-election in 1996 by figuring out that the Dems had lost the battle for position in a white dominated electorate when it traded white southerners for the black vote. When Lyndon Johnson led the charge to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act he anticipated the backlash, saying to an aide, “We have lost the South for a generation.” He could have tripled that and still come up short.

Under Clinton’s leadership, the Dems moderated their message and pivoted on key issues. The Secretary of Explaining Stuff  conceded to racist attacks on welfare, reforming it by imposing benefit caps and a work requirement, but without providing a meaningful path to livable wage employment nor addressing what would happen to those who were pushed off the rolls by those caps without first finding decent jobs. Clinton also gave us the North American Free Trade Agreement. In addition to devastating the Mexican economy, NAFTA did a whack job on American workers and crushed the small farm economy in the U.S. And it was under Clinton’s watch that Glass-Steagall was repealed, and the basic architecture of the economic bubble that finally burst in 2008 was built.

Clinton also showed American voters that a Democratic president could be just as much of a hawk as a Republican one when he signed the Iraq Liberation Act, better known as “regime change,” and led Operation Desert Fox. The Iraq Liberation Act was the trail head leading to the Iraq War.

This is some of what it took to win on Tuesday. Each time the GOP took a step to the right, the Democratic Party stepped to the right to capture the territory it left behind. And the Dems kept moving to the right until, by November 6, 2012, it had made itself nearly indistinguishable from the GOP of the 1970s, with key exceptions on social issues that, as fortune and careful polling would have it, anticipated generational and demographic change.  But those positions do not represent the kind of justice great movements formed to achieve in the years before the rise of the right.

So was Tuesday a new dawn in American politics? Only if we treat the election as the beginning and not the end of our fight, and use the rays of hope it cast to find a path to justice.

The War on Women of Color

17 Apr

The b.s. that passes for news is enough to give a person the information superhighway version of road rage.

Hardly a word of substance had been uttered about moms until  Hilary Rosen‘s statement that work-at-home mom of five Anne Romney never worked “a day in her life” became ammo in the war over women(s’ votes). Now one can barely turn on the TV without seeing the clip of Mitt Romney’s January 2012 quote about forcing women on welfare to work so they can experience “the dignity” of labor.

BTW: Earth to Romney! There’s no “dignity” in forced labor.

But what really frosts me is how a few words directed at a super rich, white work-at-homer with plenty of financial cushion to ease the pain could incite such furor, while downright mean, not to mention racist and untrue things are regularly said about poor women of color and nary a word is spoken in their defense.

Case in point: in order to justify cutting welfare and punishing low/no-income women in general for the “irresponsible” act of having children while poor, policy leaders exploit and amplify the societal stereotypes of poor women of color as lazy, sexually undisciplined layabouts making children to get benefits.

For instance, remember what was said about black women on welfare by Ronald Reagan?  He fabricated a story about a black welfare queen whose criminal gaming of the public benefits system was making her rich at our expense. This iconic image has survived for more than 30  years, delivering the message that “our hard-earned (therefore, deserved) money” is going to women of color who are either playing us or are just hopeless dependents with poor work ethics. And the assault didn’t end there.

In 1996 the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was signed into law by Bill Clinton, ending welfare as we once knew it and replacing it with Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), a program with a 5 year lifetime limit and a work requirement.   So much coded and not so coded racism was drummed up between the Reagan and Clinton years in order to justify this eventual reform that by 1996, the public didn’t know fact from fiction.

Folks thought that the black teen pregnancy rate in the 80s and early 90s was skyrocketing out of control, and that black illegitimacy was a major problem, especially because they’d been convinced  that receiving public assistance was a disincentive to work.

In 2002, Francis Fox Piven addressed the racism that drove welfare reform by citing a 1995 National Center for Health Statistics report that challenges some of the arguments about black illegitimacy rates and teen pregnancies used to promote reform.

Here are a couple of highlights:

  • In 1993 the rate of non-marital births among white women over twenty was 42% versus a black non-marital birth rate in the same age group of 25%.
  • The non-marital birth rate of white women under twenty was 18% versus 11% for black women in the same age group.

And, by the way, then as now, the teen birth rate was dropping. The out-of-wedlock rate was increasing as a percentage of a smaller number of teen births in general, but they played us on that one, too in order to raise the specter of a potential welfare boom.

Still think we’re post-racial?  Maybe post-talking about race, but certainly not past creating public policy based on racism.

Oh, and note to leaders of both major parties:  women of all colors will have won the war against them when politicians stop treating their issues like ammunition and their bodies like battlefields, and political leaders start acting like women are people.

I don’t mean just folks, I mean the people who still carry the primary responsibility of raising children with limited services such as daycare, many of whom must also work outside the home where they make 77 cents for every dollar a man makes.  A little respect is in order here.

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