Magazine article Insight on the News

'Defensive Unity' at the United Center

Magazine article Insight on the News

'Defensive Unity' at the United Center

Article excerpt

The Monday the Democratic National Convention opened wasn't especially hot by the standards of a Chicago August. Nevertheless, the mid-80s temperature, along with the fervored allegations of corporate and congressional Republican chicanery, caused many at the AFL-CIO's "America Needs a Raise" rally to reach inside a van fired with boxes of bottled water provided by a local union.

One of the demonstrators, Indiana steelworker Max Guevara, stuck a bottle under his arm and returned to handing out fliers with the slogan "Don't Bring America Down." He and his fellow protesters were urging a boycott of Firestone's Bridgestone tires, since the Japanese company that owns Firestone doesn't recognize union contracts. However, there was one problem - the bottled water slaking the thirsts of these angry American can trade unionists was Evian - a boutique brand bottled across the Atlantic in France.

Ronald Powell, president of the Chicago local of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, explained that the organizers had run out of American bottled water and had bought some of the French product at a local store. Guevara sympathized with the union chief's dilemma but added, "That's no excuse."

Aided by the hot Midwestern sun, pragmatism won that day. And indeed the entire convention week was in many ways a triumph of pragmatic unity over the Democrats, ideological fractiousness of the past. Virtually all of the party faithful pledged fealty to President Bill Clinton - in fact, the incumbent was the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to have an the convention delegates committed to his nomination before the convention. Only the welfare-reform bill, signed days before the opening of the convention and opposed by much of the party's dominant liberal wing, remained a prominent fissure beneath the surface of all that unity on display in the United Center.

What's at work, as ABC News commentator Jeff Greenfield observed, is a kind of "defensive unity." The 104th Congress and the high-profile leadership of House Speaker Newt Gingrich have served as the greatest unifier for the Democratic Party in recent memory. Even in the 1980s, Democrats who bitterly opposed Ronald Reagan had to deal with the popularity of the Great Communicator among the electorate. But opinion polls show the controversial Gingrich to be the most unpopular politician in the country, and Democrats delight in making hyperbolic attacks on the Georgian and linking him with GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole.

Ironically, no faction of the Democratic Party wants to see the hated Gingrich work in tandem with a Republican president. But Democrats - who who right now can be identified chiefly as the party in opposition to congressional Republicans - are looking beyond the victory they expect in November and see that Clinton's call for a "bridge to the 21st century" may need some infrastructure work.

Rep. Charles Stenholm of Texas, leader of the conservative Democratic "Blue Dog" Coalition in Congress, tells Insight that he will vote for the president on Election Day. "I believe very strongly that if you're a member of a party, you support that party in November," he says, adding that then "you work for what you believe after November."

While conservatives like Stenholm join with Clinton loyalists in crediting the president with reduction of the federal deficit, other Democrats are alarmed about the economic picture. Many union members at the convention, particularly trade-unionists, believe they are working harder for less money; they frequently emphasize that this means less time spent with their families.

This is not just a rhetorical device, although a plethora of speakers at the convention did try to co-opt GOP family-values rhetoric by pointing out the devastating effect economic insecurity has on the family unit. The union members who showed up at the labor rally often agree with the Republicans on cultural issues, union chief Powell admits, but they are infuse same economic unease that gave a brief boost to Patrick Buchanan's GOP presidential campaign earlier this year. …

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