Bemoaning the failure of the Democratic Party to lead has become a newsroom sport. In The New Republic's version, the Dems have squandered their Roosevelt-Truman-Kennan foreign-policy heritage by wimping out on Iraq. In New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's rendition, "The problem with the Democrats is not that they are being drowned out by Iraq. The problem is that the Democrats have nothing to say on all the issues besides Iraq."
Here at The American Prospect, we applaud the qualms expressed by some leading Democrats about Bush's Iraq misadventure, which recall the brave and prescient Vietnam dissents of Sens. Fulbright, Morse and Gruening. If some Democrats are afflicted with "Vietnam syndrome" -- defined as taking political risks to warn against ill-conceived wars -- they should wear that affliction as a badge.
But the Democrats' befuddlement on domestic issues is another story. Since FDR, Democrats have won office mainly as lunch-bucket liberals. In the era of mass unemployment, rural poverty and penury in old age, Roosevelt delivered real help and his party was rewarded with majority support. In this decade, the issues for workaday families include unreliable health insurance, impossible job-family strains on working parents, the erosion of job and pension security, and runaway corporate greed. But today's Democrats aren't offering much.
During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush sought to blur partisan differences, and he had no small help from the Democratic Party. Contrasts certainly existed, particularly on issues where Democrats were seen as protecting past gains such as Social Security and abortion rights. Yet where Democrats were trying to break new ground, their alternative was often puny and the partisan differences easily blurred. Even after the worst disgrace of corporate America since the 1930s, a disgrace literally personified by the career of Bush and his allies, the Democrats are actually running behind the Republicans in public-opinion polls that ask which party can do better at reforming corporate abuses.
In the years between Roosevelt and Reagan, the Democrats often did succeed in putting the interests of ordinary people over those of corporations and their Republican allies. Typically this process required resolutely liberal chairmen of House and Senate committees, using investigation and oversight to unearth abuses and craft remedies, often working with advocacy groups such as Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, trade unions, environmental organizations and crusading journalists.
This honor roll of progressive legislators may be unfamiliar to many readers under the age of 35 -- names such as Magnuson, Hart, Yarborough, Ribicoff, Nelson, Proxmire, Patman and Burton. Many who led those fights retired, died, or lost their seats in the Reagan blowout of 1980 and the Gingrich sweep of 1994. Often their Democratic successors were pro-corporate centrists. In short, things have been very different since 1980, not just because of the greater Republican control of the legislative branch but because today's Democratic Party -- with a few heroic exceptions -- is simply more beholden to corporate money and influence. Little reform has moved through Congress.
It is in the light of this history that one should read the frustrations of Ralph Nader. From the late 1950s through the late 1970s, Nader was very much in the mainstream of liberal reform because he had mainstream congressional allies who shared his passions about what needed reforming. Laws were actually passed. Thanks to Nader, among others, cars are safer, drugs more reliable, air and water cleaner, banks more inclined to invest in communities and countless abuses exposed to public scrutiny. And while the public interest has taken a real beating in the last two decades, it is much to the credit of Public Citizen that it gets a hearing at all. Nader's views haven't shifted; mainstream politics has, pushed to the right by corporate power.
This issue of the Prospect includes a lengthy essay by Jon Chait excoriating Nader for his 2000 third-party run for president [See "The Man Who Gave Us Bush."] Chait is a Prospect alumnus and a superb economics writer, and this magazine is open to diverse views, including his. Like many of our readers and like Chait, I was also unhappy that Nader used his exceptional energies to pursue his quixotic run for the presidency.
Nonetheless, Nader taken in his entirety deserves a more complex appreciation. Nader and Public Citizen, along with the labor movement, remain priceless assets in a conservative Washington. On issue after issue after issue, this is the informed and effective progressive lobby. And if Nader is to be damned as egotistical and vain in his motivations, surely one must ask: compared with whom in American politics? It is not really possible to say what the outcome would have been in 2000 had Nader not run, because the dynamics of the race would have been altogether different. Gore might have been even more cautious. The problem of a Democratic Party that fails to resist corporate hegemony or inspire ordinary voters is a recurring problem that is much bigger than the 2000 election, just as Ralph Nader is a bigger figure than the one depicted herein. Ours is a magazine that thrives on honest debate, and Chait and I will continue this conversation on the Prospect's Web site at www.prospect.org.