Liberalism after Clinton

By Starr, Paul | The American Prospect, August 28, 2000 | Go to article overview

Liberalism after Clinton


Starr, Paul, The American Prospect


Will a conservative or liberal agenda be at the center of national politics during the next four years? No matter how centrist George W. Bush and Al Gore sound, that is what the fall election is still fundamentally about. Conservatives seem to understand the choice and have lined up behind Bush. Many liberals don't and are withholding their support from Gore. If that ambivalence persists--according to polls through July, Gore draws less support from Democrats than Bush does from Republicans--it could signal low turnout, defections to Nader, and disaster for the Democrats in November, with enormous consequences for the future.

A Bush victory will give conservative causes new momentum and throw liberals on the defensive. Liberals will spend the next four years fighting a series of rearguard battles against regressive tax cuts, the privatization of Social Security and education, and the rollback of environmental and other protective regulations. In the Reagan-Bush era, liberals had considerable leverage through their power in Congress and the courts, but that will be much diminished in a Bush restoration. Indeed, Bush's appointments to the Supreme Court will likely tip the balance on such closely fought issues as affirmative action and reproductive rights, and further embolden the Court's conservatives in their crusade to limit federal powers. It will be a long time before liberals can again count on the courts to be a progressive force.

If Gore wins and the Democrats retake Congress, they will not necessarily enact landmark progressive legislation--that is not the mood of the country, and there is no prospect of gaining the requisite majorities in either the House or the Senate. But with the federal surplus growing, there will be running room for new initiatives, even with Gore's commitment to pay down the federal debt. If anyone had doubt about the material differences between the parties, the battles over taxes and Social Security during the past two years should have clarified the picture. The Republican initiatives--most egregiously, the repeal of the estate tax--represent massive redistribution in favor of the wealthy. The Democratic initiatives--Gore's Social Security proposals, for example--provide far more benefit to people with low and moderate incomes. The press and the public may not see the election as a decision for or against more inequality, but that is what is partly at stake.

As we prepared to do anything significant for the people prosperity has left behind? America may be somewhat complacent today, .but it is also more tolerant and less angry. …

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