Hollywood Shuffle

From the Highway 110 overpass in downtown Los Angeles, the Staples Center on the eve of the Democratic National Convention resembled the mother of all office-supply superstores, set squarely in the middle of an airforce base. Mayor Richard Riordan (who had ominously warned that “we cannot tolerate nonviolent civil disobedience” in a blustery mid-July op-ed in the L.A. Times) had blocked off a six-square-block “security zone” with a real fence-lover’s fence: fourteen feet of steel set in formidable hunks of white concrete, each section weighing half a ton.

An adjacent Sixties-era Holiday Inn found itself securely behind the fence as well, giving it a Hanoi Hilton look. Several hundred freshly planted trees on the grounds of the Staples Center were not so lucky – the mayor ordered them chopped down for fear they might be used as weapons against police or delegates. Police were everywhere. Overlooking the entire scene, with wonderfully unintended irony, was a ten-story, hand-painted mural of the godfather of American civil disobedience, Martin Luther King, Jr. King was joined in the mural (part of Apple’s nation-wide “Think Different” ad campaign) by a pantheon of other liberal American icons, including FDR, César Chávez, Bobby Kennedy, and Eleanor Roosevelt, who gazed skeptically across the demilitarized zone that separated them from the convention proceedings. It was a highly symbolic gap. The party that convened inside that fence may have once been the party of the New Deal, but those days are long gone. The New Democrats came to Hollywood with their own set of stars. If what they shot last month was the pilot episode, the series may have FDR spinning in his grave.

The New Democrat movement traces its roots to the Eighties’ birth of the Democratic Leadership Council, the think tank that produced the national candidacies of both Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and the intellectual ammunition for a host of new-style, moderate Democratic candidates. When you hear Democrats talk about accountability, welfare reform, balanced budgets, debt reduction, free trade, and the seemingly endless merits of what is called “centrism” – and you did, ad nauseum, if you were one of the few who tuned in to the endless parade of speakers at the convention – you are hearing the D.L.C. talking. The New Democrats now make up the largest caucus in the House, where they claim sixty-five members (including eight of the seventeen Texas Democrats). It was the New Democrats who whipped up support for the balanced budget agreement in 1997, over the opposition of those “old” Democrats concerned about the implications for social programs. Most recently, they were instrumental in ramrodding Clinton’s controversial China trade bill through the House this May. The bill, known as P.N.T.R. (Permanent Normal Trade Relations) would end the annual practice of reviewing China’s dismal labor and environmental record, which would greatly facilitate U.S. investment in China by companies eager to take advantage of low wages and minimal regulations. Organized labor, joined by environmental groups like the Sierra Club, drew a line in the sand on P.N.T.R., and lost. Fifty-eight percent of New Democrats supported the bill, while just 24 percent of the remaining Democrats voted in favor. (Both Minority leader Dick Gephardt and Minority Whip David Bonior opposed the measure.) This year a Senate caucus was also created; it currently totals fifteen members.

If the New Democrats seemed particularly self-satisfied at their Monday afternoon “Meet the Leaders” forum inside the convention center, they had good reason to be. As the current chairman of the D.L.C., newly anointed V.P. candidate Joe Lieberman is one of their own. “I am thrilled Gore has chosen a New Democrat, a centrist like many of us here,” Delaware Governor and senatorial candidate Tom Carper told the group. In fact, it was Lieberman, along with fellow Senator John Breaux of Louisiana, who in 1996 founded the New Democrat Network, which after just two cycles has become one of the largest PACs in Washington. As the appropriately named Congressman Adam Smith of Washington described it on Monday, the N.D.N. is the “venture capital fund” of the Democratic party, quickly becoming one of the preferred means by which corporate contributors give money to the party. Before doling out its cash, the PAC carefully vets prospective candidates (“startup companies,” Smith called them), seeking out those who adhere to the New Democrat vision. Following in the footsteps of GOPAC, Newt Gingrich’s now defunct money machine, the N.D.N. also targets state and local races. This not only allows the New Democrats to cultivate a farm team (California Governor Gray Davis has earned their attention, for example), but mixing state and federal giving also provides a convenient, if somewhat legally suspect, means of circumventing federal contribution limits to PACs, not to mention the ban on direct corporate giving to them.

“What we’re trying to do is broaden the base of the party, without alienating the more traditional constituencies,” New Democrat leader Congressman Cal Dooley of California explained in an interview after the briefing. And what are the new constituencies? “We are building support in the business sector,” he said. And how. In just two election cycles, their PAC has raised almost $7 million; their goal for this year is $5.5 million. In the buildup to the China trade vote, as organized labor called in all its chips, the N.D.N. held a series of pro-trade fundraisers, raising $275,000 for New Democrats, just to demonstrate that fundraising would not be impossible after the knife was stuck in labor’s back. They have particularly reached out to the tech industry, hosting an annual retreat in California where industry C.E.O.s from biotech to microchips can meet with members of Congress, as well as sympathetic state and local leaders, for four days of face time.

While Dooley and company held court in the belly of the Staples bunker, relegated to the relatively unprotected downtown Hyatt Regency were representatives of the “traditional constituencies,” who met at a Tuesday afternoon forum convened by the Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive organization headed by liberal intellectual Robert Borosage. Despite Cal Dooley’s affirmations, some of those present were looking pretty alienated. Gore’s choice of Lieberman had not helped matters. By Tuesday, a mini-revolt led by South-Central L.A. Congresswoman Maxine Waters was in progress within the African-American Caucus, which voiced “uneasiness” with Senator Lieberman’s previous positions on affirmative action (against) and school vouchers (for). At an event as scripted as a twenty-first century national political convention, success is measured by how little “off-message” news is generated in the daily papers. This type of open dissension, mild though it may be, is considered a failure. Such uneasiness was not confined to the African-American Caucus. Addressing Tuesday’s panel (composed of liberal congressional leaders Barney Frank and Jesse Jackson, Jr. on one side of Borosage, and the national presidents of the Steelworkers and the Sierra Club on the other), an exasperated thirty-something member of the Screen Actors Guild nearly broke down during the Q&A, begging someone to tell him why he should remain in a party that had done so little to support his fellow union members. After a strained pause, Steelworker President Walter Becker said he sympathized. “I’ll tell you what we’ve done. In 1992 we gave five million [in Democratic campaign contributions] and we got NAFTA,” Becker said. “We know our money was used by the D.N.C. to go to people who didn’t support us. So we’ve cut off the money – no more soft money,” he said. It was an unusual applause line in a crowd of Democratic delegates, but there was scattered clapping. In the current boom, Becker pointed out, every sector is expanding except manufacturing. Despite the oft-repeated mantra at the convention – 22 million new jobs in eight years – there were 336,000 manufacturing jobs lost in 1998, and the Department of Labor conservatively projects that 400,000 more will be lost per year for the foreseeable future. Most will be replaced by non-union, low-wage service industry jobs. It’s a crisis that is ignored by both parties, Becker said.

Many of those jobs have gone south of the border thanks to NAFTA, and many more will go to China, if Permanent Normal Trade Relations passes the Senate. “These are the kind of jobs, you can buy a home, a car, educate your children, and support the tax-base in the community. You never had to talk about social security at risk when you were protecting the middle class. We are undermining fifty years of social progress,” Becker said. Clinton’s most enduring legacy may ultimately be his support for free trade. The very issue that has driven labor and the environmentalists together may be the wedge that drives the Democratic Party apart. In the aftermath of the House China trade vote, both the U.A.W. and the Teamsters flirted with an endorsement of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. (The U.A.W. has since come out for Gore, and the Teamsters have declined to endorse anyone to date.)

Free trade was officially off the table at the convention, yet the presence of thousands of protestors – the largest contingent organized by anti-W.T.O. outfits like Global Exchange and Public Citizen – made the subject difficult to ignore. “Let us not forget that we [progressives] are on the popular side on globalization,” Barney Frank reminded the Tuesday afternoon gathering, citing statistics that show a majority of Americans oppose free trade with China. That is the New Democrats’ weakness, according to Borosage, who refers to them as the party’s “corporate caucus.” “They don’t have a base in the party,” he said. “They’ve always been brilliant at spinning, very brilliant at fundraising – but everything else is smoke and mirrors.” There may not be a solid constituency clamoring for free trade and deficit reduction, but the New Democrats have money, and money talks. Since 1996, two-thirds of Democrats elected to the House have joined the New Democrat Coalition.

Perhaps the only protestor to make it through Riordan’s incredible display of police power – to actually engage in a dialogue with delegates – was Lydia Lester, a guest of Borosage on Tuesday’s panel. Lester, a college student active in the Students Against Sweatshops movement, made the most of her opportunity to address the delegates. “First let me say I am not a Democrat, nor do I support the Democratic Party,” she began in a soft, nervous voice. The room went silent. As Barney Frank studied his fingernails and Dr. Robert Cox of the Sierra Club quietly glowered, she then methodically plowed through a litany of offenses abetted by the Democratic administration, from the ongoing drug war, to clearcutting in national forests, to the undercutting of campaign finance reform, to the widening gap between rich and poor. “I hope some progressive delegates can see that the changes needed can’t come from within the Democratic Party.”

There it was, in a nutshell: the message that over ten million dollars – in fences, security checkpoints, and police overtime pay – had been spent to keep the delegates from hearing. The world did not end. “Very little that she said do I disagree with,” Jesse Jackson, Jr. told the group. “I do long for the day when we are on the inside, and most of corporate America is on the outside.” Few inside Congress are closer to the grassroots protest movement in America than Jackson, whose Capitol Hill staff is known for its comprehensive list of activist contacts and its willingness to use them. As he had said very eloquently the night before, in a panel hosted by The Nation, Jackson made the case for working within the party, arguing that much could be accomplished by organizing progressive Democrats, and that getting behind Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy would only lead to victory for the Republicans. He cited the death of fast-track trade negotiating authority (a major defeat for Clinton and the New Democrats) and his work against the “NAFTA for Africa” bill which passed the House last spring. Jackson was joined by each panel member in affirming, in a general way, the goals and strategies of the protestors. However, Cox’s Sierra Club has pointedly declined to endorse any of the large demonstrations since Seattle. “We’re trying to create an opportunity for struggle that goes beyond any endorsement process,” he somewhat obliquely explained on Tuesday.

Despite the generous reception for Lydia Lester, each of her fellow panelists heartily endorsed Gore, with no apologies. For Borosage, the choice was obvious. “The point is if you’re John Sweeney, or George Becker, or fighting the environmental fight, or caring about poor people, it’s not that Al Gore is the second coming and he encourages you, it’s that if Bush is elected, you’ll spend four years on the defensive, and ten years cleaning it up,” he said. Organized labor would fare particularly poorly: “They would hunt labor like a dog.” And besides, Borosage said, as Jesse Jackson, Sr. has been telling skeptical delegates, “Don’t just look at the quarterback, look at the team on the field.” The few progressives in Congress – e.g., Paul Wellstone, David Bonior, Russ Feingold, Jesse Jackson, Jr., Barney Frank – are all Democrats. Gore will do fine with voters, Borosage predicted, if he sticks with the core message: save social security, invest in education, protect a woman’s right to choose. The liberals will come around, he said. What choice do they have?

Indeed, by Tuesday afternoon, Lieberman had met with a group of black delegates to iron things out. He was not married to his previous record, he averred, and it would be Gore’s administration, after all. (He also sang “Happy Birthday” to Rep. Waters.) The night before, meanwhile, had been “liberal night,” with Jesse Jackson, Sr. delivering a fiery speech, the only one this reporter heard that even mentioned the protestors. He reminded the convention that many of reforms this country now takes for granted, including the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, originated not in a Democratic party platform, but with protests in the streets. Jackson’s early speech was followed by Charles Rangel, Bill Bradley, and most of the living Kennedys. Gore’s much anticipated finale on Thursday night – with his promise of campaign finance reform right off the bat, and his vague reference to “powers” that sometimes stand between people and prosperity – seemed to please the delegates.

Over ten thousand reporters covered the convention, though they spent most of their time in each other’s company – an entire wing of the Staples Center was devoted to them. Now that primaries determine the candidates, and delegate selection is a closely controlled process, there is really very little of official substance to report from a national political convention. The convention is a show, not so different from the hundreds that were filmed in Los Angeles over the same four days. It has a producer, a director, and a stage manager, a beginning, a rather long, boring middle, and an exciting finale. Tom Brokaw called it a four-day infomercial for the Democrats. The budget, of course, is much larger than your average infomercial, but the Democrats do not have to pay for it – because, like its G.O.P. counterpart, it is funded primarily by corporate donations.

The streets provided a much more fluid venue for small-d democracy. Protests, of course, can also be a very stilted cultural form. But since Seattle, things have been a little more unpredictable, both in terms of alliances and tactics. Getting near the permitted marches that took place on each day of the convention proved difficult at times,
s the police had heavily lined the intersections along the route – which had the dual effect of stopping traffic, while also preventing anyone from joining a march once it had begun. I had to negotiate my way into the rowdy march against police brutality on Wednesday. After displaying my press credentials and reminding the officers that the march was legally permitted, I was allowed to pass the police line.

“You’re crazy,” one cop told me. “You want to get in with that crowd?”

I did. I really did.

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Published at 12:00 am CST