Waiting for Lefty

From where I was sitting at a recent dinner honoring Warren Beatty, hosted by Americans for Demo cratic Action in southern California, I couldn't see Courtney Love, who was certainly among the youngest of the several dozen celebrities who turned out for the first pronouncement of Beatty's not-quite-yet-if-ever-it-will-be presidential campaign. But around Beatty's fourth reference to Walter Reuther, I couldn't help wondering if Hole's lead chanteuse had any idea what the hell he was talking about. For a generation that routinely turns out for benefits to save the rain forest or the Dali Lama, Beatty's fin de siècle social democracy must have seemed the cutting edge in exotica.

For an American liberal, however- who'd abandoned all hope of ever again hearing the words single payer or plutocracy in polite conversation, let alone in a Democratic platform- Warren Beatty's coming-out party was a visceral kick. Calling himself "an old-time, unrepentant, unreconstructed, tax-and-spend, bleeding-heart, die-hard liberal Demo crat," Beatty carefully presented a treatise on rising inequality and made the case for universal health coverage, putting labor rights at the center of global-trade accords, and public funding of all campaigns for federal office. Acutely aware that his actual message could easily be lost in all the glitz, Beatty took pains to wonk up his speech, larding it with numbers and excising some applause lines. Think Economic Policy Institute press briefing, but with Garry Shandling, E!, and 150 reporters.

There's a considerable irony here. While Beatty, as he himself admits, is free of all the normal political constraints that have driven countless Democratic pols rightward, he is nonetheless proceeding- not just in the manner of his speech but in the entire conduct of his endeavor (we can't really call it a campaign)- with almost preternatural caution and deliberation and more than a touch of ambivalence about the idea of candidacy. Though he has subjected himself to innumerable issue briefings, as of this writing he has not hired any staffers, filed any papers, or performed any of the other prerequisites for fielding so much as a protest candidacy. On political substance, Beatty may be pure J. Billington Bulworth, but when it comes to getting himself out there even as a protocandidate, he's more J. Alfred Prufrock.

Part of Beatty's conundrum is that the political terrain has shifted just in the couple months since columnist Arianna Huffington first floated the Beatty-for-President balloon. Bill Bradley, who always knew that the only space he could occupy in the Democratic primaries was on Al Gore's left, has finally begun making his much advertised policy pronouncements, and they have pretty much lived up to advance billing. In particular, Bradley's proposal for near-universal health coverage is a clear improvement over Gore's pledge to augment, modestly, the administration's already modest incremental expansions of coverage.

Bradley, of course, was nobody's idea of a liberal when he served in the Senate, and he offers no alternative whatever to Gore when it comes to such trifles as letting Wall Street dictate the terms of globalization. In Campaign 2000, he is emerging as a kind of reality principle for liberals: "You know I'm not one of you, but I'm as good as it's going to get for you guys."

For his part, by hovering in the wings, Beatty is also dramatizing just how limited some of liberalism's electoral options have become. Beatty is likely to emerge over the next several months as liberalism's designated kibitzer- making all the right cases but, ultimately, from the sidelines. Because he is thoughtful and commands a huge media presence, he can advance some of those cases, swell a scene or two; it's a necessary and honorable role. And because he's anything but a novice at presidential politics, he knows that he may run the risk of marginalizing some decent policies if he actually subjects himself to the media circus that a Beatty campaign could instantly become. Kibitzer is almost certainly the better of the two roles open to Beatty. Meanwhile, the existing leftmost major candidate- on those days when he's not discussing trade, anyway- will be a former New Jersey senator who's not really left at all.

Advancing liberal ideas, of course, is not the same thing as building a national liberal organization, which is what Paul Wellstone had hoped to do in this campaign cycle before he decided to drop out. It is certainly not the same thing as running a plausible liberal campaign for president, which Dick Gephardt certainly pondered on into the night, before deciding to go for the speakership. But getting a 500-satellite-station megaphone for single-payer health insurance, labor rights, and public financing isn't exactly an everyday occurrence either. I'll vote for whom ever I have to vote for come election day. Meanwhile, Beatty for kibitzer!



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