Political Polar North
Best lead paragraph of the New Hampshire primary: “I expect to live long enough to hear a woman running for president asked what she would do if she found herself pregnant” (Ellen Goodman).
This is the year that the abortion issue was supposed to disappear from the political radar screen. “Divisive issue,” “find common ground,” “an issue on which reasonable people can disagree.” George W. Bush, leading contender for the Republican nomination, has made a specialty out of not saying much on the issue — or, more specifically, not reminding the general audience that he wants a constitutional amendment outlawing abortion. But since the rhetorical firepower on the Republican side is strongly pro-life — Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer double-teaming the wishy-washy pro-lifers, and Steve Forbes swooping down in Iowa to take advantage of the zealous pro-life voters there — it’s b-a-a-ack.
Still, there has been rather more significant political news lately than what television pundits invariably describe as “New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary.” For one thing, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a decision helpful to campaign finance reformers by upholding a limit on campaign contributions in Missouri. The majority opinion, written by Justice David Souter, said, “There is little reason to doubt that sometimes large contributions will work actual corruption on our political system and no reason to question the existence of a corresponding suspicion among the voters.” Justice John Paul Stevens argued, in contradiction to the court’s barmy 1988 decision in Buckley vs. Valeo, “Money is property: It is not free speech.” At last, a justice with enough sense not to squat on his spurs. The anti-reform Republicans keep saying to one another, “I’m sure YOU couldn’t be bought for $1,000.” I’m sure they couldn’t, but that’s not the kind of money we’re talking about. The financial industry spent $100 million last year in its successful effort to get Congress to knock down the ban that goes back to the Depression barring banks and securities and insurance firms from merging. In order to defeat the Patients’ Bill of Rights last year, a coalition of health, insurance, and business groups spent $30 million in the first six months. For that kind of money, you can buy a whole Congress. Just who do you think is giving all the soft money and why? Last year, the R’s House campaign arm alone raised a record $17 million in soft money, while the D’s raised $16 million. Beloveds, those are not $1,000 contributions.
Another longer-term look at politics was provided by President Clinton’s last State of the Union address — a vivid reminder of just who has set the political agenda for this country, and is still doing it. He called for major new initiatives on education, health care, poverty, and practically every other ill known to the nation. And a tax cut, of course. When Clinton came to Washington, there were two untouchable lobbies there: tobacco and guns. No one would take them on — it was “third-rail politics.” That neither is now untouchable is not a result of societal change; it is the result of political leadership. Clinton knew going in that he was going to tackle both. Republicans have been claiming for years, with some justification, that Clinton “steals their issues.”
Clinton has the surest sense of the political polar north — that is, dead center — that I’ve ever come across. And that means that the most interesting political development of the month, if not the decade, is Clinton’s astonishing shift on trade. At the annual summit of the real movers and shakers (I’ve always wondered why the conspiracy theorists haven’t caught onto this one) at Davos, Switzerland, Clinton tacked almost against his policies of the past seven years, or at least in amelioration of them. To an audience of national leaders and the world’s corporate elite, Clinton, the devout free trader, said, “I think those who heard a wake-up call on the streets of Seattle got the right message.” He went on to urge more open decision-making on trade issues, to make globalization work for the poor, to include trade unions (John Sweeney of the AFL-CIO was at Davos — a first), and to include NGOs. That’s government-speak for “nongovernmental organizations” — the human-rights groups, the humanitarian groups like Doctors Without Borders, environmental groups, etc.
Clinton’s argument was that if the economic elite — which has created, managed, and benefited from globalization — does not listen to the concerns of those left out, protectionism will return. “Don’t leave the little guys out,” he warned. Since the gap between rich countries and poor countries keeps growing — and in fact the World Bank just completed a study reporting that global poverty is increasing — the simplest first step is to simply forgive Third World debt. Much of that is still a holdover from loans for what turned out to be totally inappropriate technology that often screwed up the environment as well, leaving the Third World less than grateful.
Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her new book, with Observer editor Louis Dubose, is Shrub: The Short and Happy Political Life of George W. Bush. You may write to her via e-mail at email@example.com.