Issue 195 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Letter from the US

Primary lessons

'Forbes entered the primaries as an unknown. He ploughed $20 million of his own money into advertising to promote his crackpot "flat tax" abolishing progressive income tax so that rich and poor alike pay the same percentage of their income in taxes'

It's not every day that you can hear a Republican hack proclaim, 'We've only just begun the class war.' But that's what Mike Murphy, media adviser to Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander, told a Wall Street Journal reporter.

Murphy explained that 'class war' was the way Alexander planned to attack millionaire publisher Steve Forbes, whose surge in opinion polls shook up the Republican primaries.

Between February and November the Republican Party, the more conservative of the two bosses' parties, will try to choose a nominee to run against Democrat president Bill Clinton.

Nine Republican challengers to Clinton--from Kansas Senator Robert Dole, the Senate majority leader, to California Congressman Robert Dornan, a right wing nut whose chief distinction is calling Clinton a traitor for his youthful opposition to the Vietnam War--are testing their support in state by state party nominating primaries.

The primaries choose delegates who are pledged to support particular candidates at the August Republican national convention. The candidate with the most delegates after the more than 20 primaries between now and then will be the Republican nominee to run against Clinton.

Forbes, the publisher of the business magazine Forbes, entered the primaries as an unknown. He ploughed $20 million of his own money into advertising to promote his crackpot 'flat tax'--abolishing progressive income tax so that rich and poor alike pay the same percentage of their income in taxes.

Alexander, a millionaire and former Bush administration official, has been knocking Forbes as a 'zillionaire'. His '141 foot yacht is tax deductible', Alexander said of Forbes. Dole, the front runner, slammed Forbes for wanting to attack social security pensions for the elderly.

For the Republicans this was not the way it was supposed to be. When they won Congress in the 1994 mid-term election they proclaimed that the election heralded a 'realignment' in American politics and that their 'revolution'--a hard right programme of cuts in welfare spending and giveaways to big business--would change American politics for good.

More than one year later the 'revolution' lies in a shambles on the floor of Congress as Clinton has blocked some of the most right wing legislation. The Republican juggernaut which rode into the Congress last year has cracked into squabbling factions of religious zealots, and country club 'moderates'.

The religious right clamours for laws against abortion and gay rights. It has latched on to the candidacy of television commentator Patrick Buchanan, who, with support from the Christian Coalition, beat Dole in the New Hampshire primary last month. Suddenly the media are describing Buchanan as a serious--rather than as a 'fringe'--candidate.

Forbes, considered a 'moderate' because he doesn't want to outlaw abortion, has the backing of the party's 'supply siders', who believe that cutting tax on the rich will lead to a boom in the economy.

And then there is Dole, who has the support of nearly every Republican elected official on the federal and state level, but for whom the most committed Republican activists feel little enthusiasm. With all the mudslinging and 'negative' campaigning, whoever emerges at the head of the Republican pack will be weakened because of it.

All of this has left Clinton sitting in the driver's seat. With very little effort, he has catapulted himself ahead of the Republican field in most opinion polls. In contrast to the ghouls and goblins who are vying for the Republican nomination, Clinton has offered himself as a reasonable 'centrist' alternative. But his reasonable centrism sounds more and more like warmed over conservatism every day.

After hearing Clinton's January State of the Union message, Republican national chairman Haley Barbour said he thought the ghost of Ronald Reagan had taken over Clinton's body. In 1992 Clinton campaigned against 12 years of trickledown economics'. He promised 'change' and 'health care for every American'. Instead, he left a string of broken promises--including compromising away his health care reform package and surrendering to bigots after he had pledged to end the military's discrimination against gays and lesbians--which have disillusioned supporters.

And in trying to steal Republican thunder on crime, welfare and immigration, he politicised issues which the Republicans used to elect the most conservative Congress in 40 years in 1994. Clinton's conservative rhetoric has simply shifted mainstream politics to the right.

For example, the recent debate on health care between Democrats and Republicans is about how deeply to cut federal health care programmes--rather than about reform to guarantee all Americans health care. No candidate asks why government spending that helps working people is being slashed while the military budget keeps rising.

Despite this, the AFL-CIO, the US main trade union federation, has already announced that it will endorse Clinton and spend $35 million campaigning for his re-election, $15 million more than it is dedicating to recruiting unorganised workers.

Meanwhile, the gap between 'official' politics and ordinary people's aspirations continues to grow.

According to a recent national survey, the majority of Americans support spending tax dollars for job retraining, housing for the homeless, treatment for people with Aids, food stamps, social security, treatment for drug addicts and welfare for children of single teen mothers.

'Public education' and 'attention to children' are among the most important problems in the US, poll respondents said, while 'illegal immigration' and 'too much government regulation' were among the least important problems cited.

But where is the candidate who reflects these priorities? Certainly not in the Republican primaries. And certainly not in Clinton--whose record provides three years of proof.
Lance Selfa

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page