During the last weekend of April I attended the annual convention of the California Democratic Party. In much of the convention we heard various state and federal office holders deliver speeches, some of which were informative and even, occasionally, inspiring. Others tended toward platitudes. But I was disappointed that none of our leaders there -- not John Garamendi nor Jerry Brown nor Gavin Newsom nor Bill Lockyer nor Nancy Pelosi, no one -- touched on the most critical subject of all.
Here then is an example of a speech that was not given:
Good morning Democrats!
["Good morning!" responds the audience.]
Isn't it great to be a Democrat!
["Yes!!" roar back the delegates]
We have at last a Democratic president, for the first time in our history an African-American, Barack Obama!
[Loud applause and a standing ovation from the audience.]
And for the first time in history we have a woman Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi!
[More foot-stomping applause!]
And we're gonna pass universal health care! [More applause.] And we're gonna end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home! ["Hooray! shouts the audience.] And we're gonna get America off its addiction to foreign oil by creating clean, renewable energy sources! [Still more applause.] And we're gonna produce American made fuel efficient cars! And we're end these outrageous, wasteful agricultural subsidies that mostly fund wealthy agribusiness interests! ["Yes! Yes!"] And we're gonna treat our teachers as the professionals that they are, pay them what they're worth, and make our schools the best in the world!
Sh-h-h-h-h-h! I want you now to sit down and end all your personal conversations. I want pin-dropping silence because what I am about to say is the most important thing you'll hear this weekend. Okay.
It ain't gonna happen.
It ain't gonna happen because too many Democrats in Washington won't support President Obama's programs and policies.
"What?" you are saying. "All these promises will be unfulfilled? All the expectations disappointed? You can't be serious!"
I am serious. The question you should be asking yourselves is this: "How was it that George W. Bush was so successful in achieving his legislative goals?" After all, Bush squeaked into the White House in the year 2000 with fewer votes than Al Gore had. He had only a small majority in the House and the Senate was split 50-50. Yet, he was able to pass environmental legislation that was literally written by the coal and oil companies. He passed legislation dismantling the Medicare drug coverage giving a huge boon to the pharmaceutical industry. He passed the "no child left behind" education reform as well as the Help America Vote "Republican" Act. And perhaps worst of all, he was able to obtain huge funds for an unnecessary war in Iraq for 8 years.
By contrast Obama was elected with 7% margin in the popular vote, a 79 seat margin in the House, and a 17-seat margin in the Senate, so why can't we achieve an even greater level of success with our programs?
Bush was successful because the ideology of the Republican Party and the agenda of the Bush administration were in close consonance with the aims of American Big Business.
The goals of Democrats, particularly us Democratic activists, are at odds with those of Big Business, yet many Democratic legislators have to rely on the support or at least acquiescence of Big Business.
One of the great liberal Democratic legislators is Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, who in most years has a 100% perfect voting record from the very liberal Americans for Democratic Action. But in 2007 the Senate was considering raising Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for cars to 52 miles per gallon; Levin proposed an alternate, much lower, 36 mpg standard. He is sometimes referred to as the senator from Big Auto.
Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota chairs the Senate Budget Committee. Representing, as he does, a major agricultural state, he is a reliable supporter of agribusiness interests. On March 24th of this year he announced that he would oppose the Obama plan to reduce crop subsidies of billions of dollars, subsidies the benefit mostly large, wealthy farms. He plans instead to save money by cutting conservation programs.
Banks are beneficiaries of another "no way to lose" program, one that concerns student loans. If a student defaults on such a loan, the federal government guarantees repayment of the loan. In 1993 Bill Clinton inaugurated a program by which the government makes direct loans to students thereby offering lower interest rates thus competing with commercial lenders. Obama has proposed ending the student guaranteed loans, which would result in an estimated saving to the taxpayer of about $4 billion a year. Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, reputed to be a fiscal conservative, has opposed this Obama proposal. It seems that a major provider of student loans is Nelnet, Inc., which is based in Lincoln, Nebraska, and which has contributed over $49,000 to Nelson's campaigns in the past six years.
These are not bad men; they are good men. They vote as wanted by the liberal, progressive Democratic activists in this convention almost every time. The exceptions are when a vote threatens their major campaign donors. The problem is that they are trapped in a very corrupt system, a system that requires them on occasion to compromise their principles in the interests of raising enough money to ensure their re-election. Most of them know this. Most of them hate it. But they are trapped.
This corrupt system is what will almost certainly result in the defeat many major objectives of the Obama program.
"But," you ask, "hasn't Obama already had astounding success in his first 100 days? Didn't he pass the $800 billion bank bailout legislation and a $3.4 trillion budget?"
He sure did, and that illustrates my point. The bailout was for banks--Big Business contributors to many legislative campaigns. And federal spending of $3.4 trillion in a year is enough to make any Big Businessman dance in the streets.
Are the prospects really hopeless for Obama's program for clean, renewable energy, for universal health insurance, for major education reform, and for environmental protection? Unless the current system of campaign finance is radically reformed, I'm afraid the answer is "yes."
There is, however, a hopeful development, which is that such radical reform is on the horizon. Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois together with Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania have introduced Senate Bill S.752, the "Fair Elections Now Act." Reps. John Larson of New York and Walter Jones of North Carolina have introduced the companion bill H.R.1826 in the House. These bills would bring public financing of federal election campaigns. Here is what Sen. Durbin had to say about the current system:
"Today the amount of money spent in top ten competitive Senate races averages $34 million per campaign - double what it was just four years ago. It takes a mountain of money - about $7 million on average - even to lose a Senate campaign. This is not sustainable. People who say the public shouldn't have to pay for elections are missing the point: The American people already pay for elections - in ways that favor incumbents and special interests and in a Congressional agenda spawned too many times by those who finance our campaigns. Public financing will cost us only a fraction of what the current system costs."
Similar public financing has been wildly successful in state races in Maine and Arizona. Even many politicians that had initially opposed public financing in those states are now highly supportive. It is instructive that the only state in the U.S. that has universal health care is Maine, and that program was instituted only after enough state legislators were elected using public funds to overcome the opposition of private health insurance providers.
Many of the other speakers at this convention gave rousing and inspiring speeches. I am disappointed that none of them, not one, mentioned, even in passing, public financing of campaigns as a legislative objective. It should have been stressed by every one of them. It should have been the subject of every speech. It should be made the top, no the only, priority of every one of them.
It should be your only priority and the only priority of every liberal PAC, every Democratic club and organization, every campaign, and every state and federal legislator. The public must be aware of the campaign for public financing. They must hear of it continually until the Fair Elections Now Act is passed and signed into law!
It is the only way Barack Obama will be remembered as a great and successful president.
[Stunned silence and scattered applause.]
by Herb Engstrom
Herb Engstrom is a retired physicist who worked on materials problems related to energy production and storage at both Brookhaven and Oak Ridge National Labs.