Staying on Point

Talk about making my day, maybe even my week. It was a few days ago, Friday, August 9th. I picked up the morning paper and found a headline that Dick Armey, the conservative, big and bad, House Republican leader, was publicly opposed to an invasion of Iraq. I remember thinking, “Wow, there really may be some hope that we can head this one off.”

What was particularly striking about Armey’s statement was its forthrightness. He didn’t do the Colin Powell/Clintonesque routine of saying that he’s against taking action now, that maybe we should invade later if Saddam doesn’t let U.N. inspectors in and if he doesn’t dismantle all his “weapons of mass destruction.” Armey was very clear: “My own view would be to let him bluster, let him rant and rave all he wants and let that be a matter between he and his own country. As long as he behaves himself within his own borders, we should not be addressing any attack or resources against him.”

Dick Armey also played a major role in the defeat in the House of Representatives of John Ashcroft’s TIPS program. This un-American plan would turn a million or so U.S. citizens into untrained government informers on the lookout for something “suspicious” when they go into strangers’ homes.

What’s going on here? In thinking about this unexpected development, I remembered some words of wisdom from peace activist David Dellinger spoken about 30 years ago.

Dellinger, 12 other people and myself were on what turned out to be a 40-day, water-only hunger strike in opposition to the escalation of the air war in Vietnam that had been undertaken that spring of 1972 by President Richard Nixon. We were very afraid that Nixon might bomb North Vietnam’s dikes, leading to a massive loss of innocent lives, or even use nuclear weapons. Our hunger strike was undertaken out of a deep feeling of urgency.

George McGovern was the Democratic Party’s nominee for President that year, and he was very much a peace candidate. He was also 20 or more points behind in the polls as the New York City summer heat intensified, and a number of us were disturbed by this. But in words that obviously had an impact upon at least me, Dellinger cautioned us against getting too caught up in this particular election campaign and its results. He said, in words that proved to be prophetic five months later, that from his experience there were other factors at work which were ultimately more significant than whether Nixon or McGovern became President. Our job, our role, was to not get sucked into the two-party electoral game but, instead, to keep our eyes on the prize, stay focused on the issues, do all we could build up a strong anti-war movement.

Five months later, on January 27, 1973, the United States government, with Nixon at the beginning of his second term, signed a peace agreement with North Vietnam that led two years and three months later to the complete withdrawal of the United States from all parts of Vietnam and an end to the war.

This insight of Dellinger’s has been born out in my experience over and over again, on both local and national levels. It was Democrat Bill Clinton who resurrected a NAFTA agreement almost sunk under George Bush Sr. in 1992, but it was also Democrat Bill Clinton who was unable to pass fast track legislation later in that decade because of the independent organizing and coalitions which made such passage politically impossible. And just recently it was corporate-connected Democrats and Republicans who unanimously passed legislation in the Senate to tighten up regulation of corporations because of the widespread revulsion throughout the country against the Enron, WorldCom and other corporate crime scandals.

Our job is not to join the Democrats in their often-shameless power games. Too many Democrats, just like and sometimes even more than Republicans, are willing to use whatever tactics, say whatever they think is popular at the moment, and abandon any pretense at being principled in the name of being “practical” and winning political office. Too many progressives who should know better, for far too long, have gone along with this approach and refused to challenge it, either from inside the party or from outside. The results: Bush/Cheney rather than not-much-better Gore/Lieberman in office, and a Democratic Party now almost completely taken over by the conservative Democratic Leadership Council crowd.

The time is long overdue for the progressive movement as a whole to learn from experience and do what is not just right and principled but also what is practical and more likely to lead to success. This is true certainly in the medium or long run, and if we do our work well, also many times in the short run.

Dick Armey said what he did in large part because there is a great deal of unease and concern among large numbers of people in this country about the militaristic and repressive approach of the Cheney/Rumsfeld/Ashcroft group within the Bush Administration. It is our job to build upon that unease and turn it into the strongest possible political pressure. Let’s engage in political organizing and campaigns around issues that reach out broadly to the U.S. American people who are without question open to a great deal of what we stand for. And let’s give active support only to candidates who articulate a genuinely progressive agenda on the campaign trail. If such an approach became the approach of much of our movement, we would probably be surprised by the political progress and the greater political impact we would have.