VOLUNTEER AND VOTE
By Paul Rogat Loeb
The vote that gave Bush the power to go war with Iraq was timed to help hand the Republicans every branch of national power in this country. And with the tragic death of Senator Paul Wellstone, unless a good deal more citizens get involved in the upcoming election, the Republican strategy might succeed.
Conventional wisdom says Bush pushed through the vote so Republicans could drown out other critical issues—the economy, corporate crime, environmental destruction—and attack Democratic opponents as unpatriotic. They’re doing this, with a ruthlessness to be expected from Bush campaign manager Karl Rove and the others calling the shots in recent Republican campaigns. But the greater threat from the vote is that many people who normally volunteer for Democratic candidates and furnish their grassroots financial base will stay home in critical races because they’re angry at the Democratic leadership and those Senators and Congressmen who caved on the war powers. The withdrawal of volunteer energy could then allow the Republicans to end up holding the Senate, the House, the Presidency, and—with one or two more nominees—an even more rabidly right-wing Supreme Court for the next generation. If what Bush has passed so far is frightening, imagine if he gets “a Congress I can work with.”
This isn’t an abstract possibility. The Republicans captured the pivotal 1994 election in large part because progressive activists all over the country stayed home, at least in terms of volunteering, angered by Clinton’s role in pushing through NAFTA. Pundits credited the Republican victories to angry white men, Clinton’s failed health care plan, and Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America.” But the defeat was equally rooted in a massive withdrawal of volunteer support among social justice activists who viewed themselves as politically betrayed. Angered by a sense that Clinton was subordinating all other priorities to corporate profits, grassroots activists nationwide withdrew their energy from Democratic electoral campaigns. And by so doing, they helped swing the election for Gingrich.
No place saw a more dramatic political shift in that election than my home state of Washington. Core Democratic activists had volunteered by the thousands in November 1992, hoping to end the Reagan-Bush era. On Election Day, I joined five other volunteers to help get out the vote in a swing Congressional district 25 miles south of Seattle. Practically every major Democratic district in the state had a similar presence. By turning out enough supporters, we helped carry Washington State for Clinton and Gore, elect our first woman senator, capture eight out of nine House seats for the Democrats, and elect a strong populist governor.
By two years later, in 1994, things had changed. Grassroots Democratic campaigners mostly stayed home, as disgruntled spectators. In Washington State, there were barely enough people to distribute literature and make phone calls in Seattle's most liberal neighborhoods, let alone in swing suburban districts. The same was true nationwide. I was traveling city to city, promoting a book on campus activism, while visiting friends long involved with social causes. Everywhere I went, critical races would be decided by the narrowest of margins. Yet my friends seemed strangely detached from the process, as if they were so disgusted with the official political sphere they no longer wanted anything to do with it. In Washington State, Republicans won seven of the nine Congressional races, and voters re-elected Senator Slade Gorton, known for baiting Native Americans and environmentalists. According to national surveys by CNN and Gallup, the forty-two percent of America’s registered voters who stayed home leaned Democratic by a wide enough margin that they would have reversed the electoral outcome, had they only gone to the polls. Even a modest volunteer effort could have prevented the Republican sweep and all the destructive politics that’s followed in its wake.
I worry that the Iraq war vote will similarly demoralize Democratic volunteers, even though sixty percent of Democratic Congressmen and half the Democratic Senators took the risk of being labeled as unpatriotic, and stood up against it. They did the right thing in part because so many constituents called, faxed and emailed, demanding that they take a stand. But people are also angry, and rightly so, at those who’ve capitulated. In a time when so many races hang in the balance I fear our anger and resulting withdrawal may reverse the critical one-vote margin in the Senate, and give Bush near total control. That means ramming through the ultra-right judges that the Judicial committee has been able to block, enacting more destructive environmental laws, pushing through even more regressive taxes, cutting even more services to the poor, and escalating still further the attacks on organized labor. That’s an ugly agenda, and one that’s unconstrained by any sense of humility or hesitation. For all the talk of kindness and compassion, this feels like the most frightening administration in my fifty years on the planet.
Whether the Bush administration gains more power or suffers a setback will depend on who turns out at the polls in race after contested race. If the 2000 election taught us anything, it’s that elections can hinge on razor-thin margins. In my state, Democrat Maria Cantwell defeated hard-right Republican Senator Slade Gorton by 2,229 votes out of more than 2.5 million cast. Had thousands of volunteers not rang doorbells, walked precincts, and made phone calls to convince undecided voters and get people to the polls, Gorton would be our Senator today. (Cantwell voted the wrong way on Iraq, but took good strong stands in key tax and environmental votes, and is still vastly better then Gorton). Bush was given Florida by the Supreme Court, the butterfly ballot, the Nader vote, the Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised one in three African-American men as ex-felons and caused tens of thousands of largely Democratic voters to be falsely told that they were ineligible, and a host of other abuses. But even in the Bush/Katherine Harris version, fewer than 550 Florida voters handed Bush the presidency that he lost nationally by more than a half million votes.
To prevail in contested races, Democratic candidates need widespread citizen involvement. They need the precise kinds of volunteers who were frustrated by the vote on Iraq. They need them because they’re never going to have the kinds of money available that Bush has been raising non-stop. In some close races, there should be no moral ambivalence. The late Senator Paul Wellstone was in a neck-and-neck struggle in Minnesota, but still took a principled stand against going to war. Senate candidates like Bill Bradbury in Oregon and Chellie Pingree in Maine have spoken out strongly as well. Others, like Tim Johnson and Jean Carnahan, did cave under pressure or electoral fear, but still have taken strong worthwhile stands on many other issues. We might remember that only a single Republican Senator broke with Bush, and only six Republican House members. I know that Paul Wellstone, who was long one of my heroes, would want us to do everything we can in this critical time.
So what to do with our anger about the Iraq vote? We may need to make some pragmatic choices to keep the Republicans from seizing total power, but that doesn’t mean we’re morally obligated to praise those candidates who may lead us into a disastrous war. Some are also talking of running for president, from the avowedly hawkish Lieberman, Gephardt, and Edwards, to those like Kerry and Daschle who raised real reservations and then capitulated. So we have opportunities to make clear that their surrender has cost them our support in presidential primaries and caucuses—and that we will do whatever we can to ensure that we have a Democratic candidate who offers a genuine alternative on this critical issue as well as others.
For now, though, our challenge is clear. If we’re remotely near a closely contested Senate or House race, we need to involve ourselves in every home stretch effort we can to convince undecided voters and even more critically, to get out every possible vote on Election Day, even if they caved on the Iraq vote. Move On (www.moveonpac.org) lists critical races in every corner of the country, with links on how to volunteer: Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, Bill Bradbury in Oregon, Jean Carnahan in Missouri, Tim Johnson in South Dakota, Tom Strickland in Colorado, Mark Pryor in Arkansas, whoever will succeed Paul Wellstone as the Minnesota nominee, and worth Congressional candidates a several dozen swing districts. We can write letters to local papers, call in to radio talk shows, and volunteer through local labor networks, environmental groups, or the Democratic party. But we need to find some candidates where our efforts may make the difference. And wherever we live, we can donate in a way that can matter. Last election, Moveonpac raised $2.4 million in contributions that averaged just $60 each, and made a critical difference in at least four razor-thin Senate races and a number of key House races. They now have links to donate to practically every critical Senate and Congressional race. On-line contributions get logged in almost instantly, so the campaigns can effectively use them. Long-term, we need genuine campaign reform, using public financing models that now work wonderfully in Maine, Arizona, and Vermont and have been passed in Massachusetts. We need to work on these issues and a host of others after the election is past. But for the moment the campaign dollars matter. The more of us who can contribute, the more it will help.
It’s tempting to stew in our anger, but anger is useful only when it impels us to action. Like it or not, we face a president who came to power in the most questionable of ways, and whose administration has done everything to consolidate that power ever since. The Democrats have alternated between accommodating and sometimes resisting, but they’ve blocked some bad measures and with one or two more votes would have stopped far more. The Republicans, with a handful of exceptions, have marched in unison—never hesitating, never dissenting, doing their best to hand over our common future to the Enrons of the world. Whether they succeed in this task may depend on what we do between now and the election.
Paul Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time (www.soulofacitizen.org) and three other books on citizen involvement.