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Waiting for Lefty


By William E. Mckibben

The news of the death of the liberal left has been greatly exaggerated. --Michael Harrington

THE LEFT WING of the Democratic Party is not yet pushing up the daisies. It is far, however, from healthy. And the election campaign this fall will probably worsen the illness and make the symptoms more obvious.

Last Tuesday morning, as the Democratic Party proper began its platform debate, part of its shrinking left edge rallied under the name "Democratic Agenda" at an aging theater on West 43rd St. Harrington, chairman of the Democratic Socialist organizing committee, called Democratic Agenda a "coalition that uniquely brings together all the progressive constituencies around the idea that we cannot solve any of our problems without full employment." If Democratic Agenda truly represents "all progressive constituencies" the the left is seriously arthritic. Almost every spokesman at the rally was a veteran, most well past the zenith of their influence. Gloria Steinem called for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Cesar Chavez wants a boycott of Maggio brand carrots. And United Auto Workers president Douglas Fraser said his constituency was interested in a single issue--more jobs.

Even the method for obtaining full employment divides the group. To Fraser and many of his labor colleagues, it is a matter of maintaining and expanding old programs--"the platform we adopted in '76 was pretty good, and it just hasn't been used yet," Fraser said. To Harrington and the 38 socialist delegtes at the convention who caucused Wednesday, the party must "go as far beyond FDR as he went beyond Hoover, to a new a much more radical liberalism."

But Harrington, and even Fraser, spent their energies in a defensive battle, struggling to keep the majority party from drifting to the right. They even lost that battle, at least in some ways. Jimmy Carter is the first Democratic president since the New Deal to worry as much about inflation as unemployment, purposefully reducing job opportunities in an effort to hold down rising prices. He not only is the first to advocate such a plan, he was also the first to get away with it. Ted Kennedy and the liberals won their floor fight, swinging the convention behind a $12 million jobs program. But they lost where it counted; even while delegates were shouting "JOBS, JOBS, JOBS," Carter was telling his aides that he could never endorse such a program. Too inflationary, explained Carter, who later in the day would send a letter to the convention defending the $60 million M-X missile.

Though the failings are many, the paramount problem facing Democratic liberals is their inability to convince large numbers of Americans to support large-scale social spending. The glamor programs of the '60s are now abused as giveaways; where once Americans applauded the war on poverty, they now save their praise, and their votes, for those who pledge to ferret out welfare cheats. "We must talk about the people that it is no longer popular to talk about," Representative Ronald Dellums (D-Cal.) told the convention Wednesday night. Liberals, he added, just "win back the party and win back America."

Harrington's career provides a good benchmark for charting the rise of disinterest. When he wrote The Other America in the early '60s, almost everyone, including congress, listened. Decade of Decision, issued earlier this year and just as full of the hope and despair of American life as his earlier work, already carpets remainder tables coast to coast.

American politics, much more than in countries with parliamentary system, demands visible leaders. One name begins and ends the list of national liberal spokesmen--Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass). His strengths and weaknesses explain much about the rise, continuing fall, and potential resurgence of the Democratic left wing.

Kennedy captivated the convention hall audience Tuesday night and he captured the hearts and cameras of the media. But he was speaking to people who remembered his brothers, who understood his place in the context of history and of American liberalism, who had watched his humiliating campaign. On the stump, however, Kennedy was perceived not only as irresponsible--the tarnish of Chappaquiddick seems resistant to the polish of time and resilient to the force of reason--but also personally weak. In short, though the polls show many Democrats agree with him, he was unable to best a spectacularly unsuccessful president.

THERE ARE OTHER colorful leaders on the left. They confine their efforts, however, to a cause, not the cause. Steinem talks ERA, Chavez talks carrots. Consequently, parts of the liberal philosophy may do very well indeed--witness, for example, the increased attention recently paid gay rights--while the liberal movement as a unified whole, remains an academic proposition.

Beyond that lack of leaders, and the divisions that emerge from single-issue politics, there are other frailties. In the '60s, the left was hyper-organized, able to turn out massive amounts of money and support. But as the reformers of that decade opted out of the system, the networks began to collapse. Simultaneously, the right began to learn its lesson. A man named Richard Vigurie looked fondly at the power of the Sierra Club or the anti-war groups to mobilize support, and decided to go them one better. His computer bank now contains more than 20 million names, most of them eager to give cash to anyone or anything that will help uphold decency, religion and high profits. The anti-feminists, formerly too demure to march and lobby, now scream shrilly about co-ed bathrooms; the pro-life contingent bombs clinics and pesters legislators. Liberals seem to be slowly emerging from the alfalfa-sprout doldrums of the decade past--a Vigurie-style operation was set up this year by some old '60s radicals--but they have a ways to go before the marchers on Washington and the floods of postcards resume.

In their current disarray, the liberal wing of the party, most notably minority and urban Democrats, face an election that could shred whatever solidarity remains. There are three possibilities for the left--it can go for John B. Anderson (R-Ill.), it can split into innumerable blocs, backing the hopeless candidacies of Barry Commoner or socialist David McReynolds or communist veteran Gus Hall, or it can somehow manage to fall in line behind Carter.

The Anderson alternative--already embraced by Stewart Mott and others of the monied left--is a possibility. Though Anderson enthusiasts were having a hard time finding much support on the convention floor, their man stands to profit from every barrage Carter and Reagan level at each other. Many Americans will perceive Anderson as a moderate, and many on the left will examine his campaign closely and find much to cheer, both in style and substance. Anderson's vice-presidential choice, and even more importantly, his standing in the polls as election day approaches will determine how much support he gets from the Democratic left. Should he be close going into election day he may inherit the support of some disgruntled Kennedy backers. More likely, he will fade as liberals decide he is an ersatz lefty, with a record that makes Carter look like a member of the Politburo.

Fringe party candidates always get about the same minuscule percentage of the vote; only a few opt to salve their consciences by supporting the dogma-ridden, the-revolution-is-coming corners of American politics. But this year, the candidacy of Commoner and his Citizens Party running mate LaDonna Harris, may pick up one or two per cent of the vote. Commoner is well-known to liberals, and by all accounts well-loved, the evangelical scientist, who appeals mostly to academics and environmentalists. If enough leftists, especially on campuses, vote for him, they could tip the balance in one or two states.

The third option--uniting behind Jimmy Carter--will take more than the endorsement delivered by Ted Kennedy via Tip O'Neill earlier this week. Left Democrats, as noted, are concerned about causes--the woman's movement will realize that Carter spurned their ERA and abortion platform planks, some Blacks walked out last night because he wouldn't even meet with them, and labor may recognize that "hundreds of thousands of jobs" promised by Carter is not quite the same as the $12 billion employment program he repudiated. Four years ago, Carter was an untested commodity--liberals voted for him with hope. If they vote for him this time, it will be with a sense of resignation, knowing that they merely cast anti-Reagan ballots. And in supporting Carter, the left will submerge itself once again, proving to future candidates that they need not worry about the liberal vote as long as there is an impotent loser trying to prove his virility by leading the Republican ticket. And there always is.

THE UNATTRACTIVENESS of all three options leads to a final possibility--liberals might just stay home. Actually, the Democratic left will never fail to vote in large numbers. It makes them feel guilty and cheats them of the righteous pleasure of complaining during the subsequent four years. But they may very well stay away from the storefronts where the Carter campaign will desperately need volunteers. Thanks to new campaign financing laws, their money is not in great demand, but the endless effort of suburban housewives, the station wagons to get people to the polls, the send-me-anywhere usefulness of college activists is essential.

Should the left--primarily Blacks, students and feminists--stay home, it will send a message that it cannot be counted on to always back the lesser of three evils. It will also hand the election to Ronald Wilson Reagan, the bogey-man in the closet whose image every speaker this week has summoned in an effort to keep the troops in line. There are those who say a Reagan presidency would be the best thing that could happen to the left--four years of fascism, they reason, might turn Americans into leftists again. The people who talk like this most often live in Shaker Heights and practice corporate law during the day; if Ronald Reagan wins his battle, Common Cause may thrive, but Americans on the edge of poverty will suffer horribly.

So the short-term future is bleak; if the liberals sacrifice principle, they remain powerless. If they stand on principle, they fall on it as well, for Reagan will do his best, which may be pretty good, to dismantle every useful piece of government legislation ever passed. Over the longer haul, there may be slightly more promise for the liberal wing. Should Reagan win, liberals will consolidate; should Carter win, he must pass the presidency on in four years. It seems unlikely liberals will accept Walter Mondale as his successor, tainted as he is by his vigorous pimping for the president and his bitter attack on Kennedy in recent months. But there are other, new leaders that may be emerging Dellums turned on a lukewarm crowd with his mix of preaching and urban populism. Senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Senator Paul Tsongas (D-Mass), State Sen. Julian bond of Georgia and Gov. Jerry Brown of California are all young, all liberals within the party mainstream, and all rising stars.

But the main man for the liberal faction remains Ted Kennedy. Already his people are suggesting that the Bay State Senator may have "undone Chappaquiddick" with his fiery speech Tuesday night. Probably not, but he did set lie to the notion that he cannot lead. More importantly, he managed to unite the entire left--from Harrington to Dellums, to Fraser--behind him with his appeal to the issues, a unity demonstrated the next night when nearly every delegate pledged to Kennedy voted for him despite his withdrawal from the race. As he was finishing his speech, one delegate unfurled a banner reading "Kennedy in '84"; tactically, his decision to stay with the party at least guarantees him a good shot next time. Should the force of one speech be enough to cement together an aging, divided coalition through a campaign that promises only dilemmas and four years that will be bitter at best, Kennedy may yet have his day in the sun. He had better, for without him the liberal left will remain in the shadows.

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