Anyone Left? the Search for a Clinton Challenger in 1996

Article excerpt

In the farm country of western Iowa, where disenchantment with Washington frequently builds into a political cyclone, Bill Clinton has stirred some mighty winds. "Among progressives in Iowa, there's a real frustration with Clinton," says John Norris, a veteran farm activist who knows the political landscape in these parts as well as anyone. "You hear disappointment in people's voices. There's a sense that he hasn't handled the Presidency that well."

The President's support for the North American Free Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, along with his stumbles on health care and a host of bread-and-butter issues, have lowered his stock with the family farmers, teachers, and factory workers who form the backbone of the Democratic Party in Iowa and other states.

In the past, Democratic Presidents carrying that sort of baggage into Iowa would have encountered serious rumblings about a challenge from the left. But as Clinton and his aides sweep across the Hawkeye State this spring in preparation for next February's first-in-the-nation caucuses, they are not running into anything like the resistance that Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter met with.

"It's pretty quiet out here," says Norris, who ran Jesse Jackson's 1988 campaign in Iowa. "People just aren't energized the way they were in the past. The frustration with Clinton may be there, but I just don't hear a great clamoring for another candidate. I don't think people are up for that sort of fight."

Norris's observations from Iowa are echoed by activists in other corners of the country. While Clinton's perceived weaknesses have drawn a parade of right-wing firebrands into the Republican Party's Presidential nomination battle, there has been far less activity on Clinton's left flank.

Progressives may have just as many complaints about Clinton as do conservatives, but the movement needed to mount a serious left-wing challenge to the President-either for the Democratic nomination or from an independent in November--has yet to take hold. And as the 1996 political clock begins to speed up, a growing number of activists are wondering it the battle will be joined at all.

"I haven't heard word one about a challenge to Clinton," says Detroit-based labor activist and author Jane Slaughter, who maintains close contact with a network of progressive union and political activists around the country. "There are certainly people who'd like to see a challenge to Clinton, but I haven't heard that sentiment turning into a full-fledged challenge."

"I just don't see a challenge coming," says Joel Rogers, a University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor, who is one of the leaders of the New Party, which has elected several dozen progressive candidates in local races around the country. "The left is so disorganized at this point that I don't see it getting together in time to mount much of a challenge."

Rogers believes the Republican Party's Congressional victories last fall, and the drive by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his minions to implement a radical-right agenda, have actually helped solidify Clinton's position. While the President may vacillate between accommodation and combat with the Republicans, he tends to look good by comparison both with the Congressional leadership and with GOP Presidential prospects like Texas Senator Phil Gramm and Pat Buchanan.

"The Contract with America stuff is proving to be a blessing for Clinton," explains Rogers. "No one to the left of Genghis Khan wants President Gramm. And a lot of people are afraid to do anything that might be seen as weakening Clinton."

The New Party argues that the left must rebuild from the grassroots, focusing on local electoral strategies rather than pouring scant resources into an uphill national campaign. Another progressive grouping, Labor Party Advocates, suggests, in the words of proponent Tony Mazzocchi, that "we need to put our emphasis on reshaping the national agenda, not on advancing the cause of a particular candidate. …