This book should be dedicated to an unfailing source of inspiration for me: the California recall race. If it had not happened and if I had not run for governor, this would simply be a book of criticism and outrage. These are perfectly legitimate responses to our current political landscape. But my temporary transformation from pundit to candidate brought me face-to-face with the inadequacy of criticism and outrage, no matter how witty, quotable, or justified.
Don't get me wrong: In the pages ahead there will be plenty of criticism of the fanatics who now run the Republican Party and the fools guiding the Democratic Party who have enabled the fanatics to prevail. But the heart of the book is my newfound conviction that to win in November, the Democratic nominee will have to propose a return to the idealism, boldness, and generosity of spirit that marked the presidencies of FDR and JFK and the short-lived presidential campaign of Bobby Kennedy.
The 2004 presidential election will be a political event with unprecedented significance for our lives and the lives of our children. Bush Republicans have offered a messianic vision of a new world built on tax cuts. This call has proven incredibly alluring: it's clear, it's broad, and it's accessible. Democrats need to present a vision that is equally clear, broad, and accessible, and that answers the fundamental question: what sort of America do we want to live in? Do we want an America that's fair and generous and demands the best of its citizens, an America where equal opportunity is a reality, not an empty slogan, an America that is respected around the world for its commitment to freedom and justice, an America that takes on the mantle of superpower in order to confront repression, relieve suffering, and preserve world peace? Can we aspire again to creating a country where full-time work yields a living wage and where good schools and good health care forge a stronger America in which every citizen is better off?
If the question is accurately framed, the Bush Republicans' one-note answer doesn't even have the virtue of self-interest. An America where the gulf between rich and poor is not so grotesque, where hard work is rewarded, where every child can get a decent education, and where health care is available to everyone is a stronger America for us all -- including Bush Republicans.
These are long-standing American ideals, not inventions of the left. But an indication of how successful the Republican machine has been at framing the overarching political debate is that even in times of dire emergency, when a state like California is facing the prospect of bankruptcy, tax increases, which should be a viable fiscal lifeline, are instead seen as a suicide pill. We've gotten to the point in this country where you can't raise taxes to repel an invasion from Mars unless you are able to disguise them as an economic stimulus package.
So here we are, watching the social contract go up in flames, not just in California, but in the entire country. It's a blaze ignited by the fanatics and watched helplessly by the fools. But ushering Bush and his band of fanatics out of the White House in 2004 is going to take more than just a critique, however masterful, of what they've done to our country. It's going to take a moral vision that replaces the dark grasping of the Bush administration. And given the stakes, and the way our political system is currently structured, it's going to have to be the Democratic presidential candidate who provides it.
There you have it. This is my endorsement for president in 2004: The Democrat. Although the story I'm about to tell you of fanatics and fools, of evil villains and even one or two heroes, is very much a political thriller, I'm violating one of Tom Clancy's golden rules: I'm starting with a surprise beginning rather than concluding with a surprise ending. That I should pick a side for 2004, especially one I've been criticizing as tired, intellectually bankrupt, and complicit in the current crisis, rather than advocate some new progressive coalition, is a big turnaround for me. In the years that have passed since my Republican interlude, I've been more comfortable on the outside of the two-party system because only from the outside, I believe, is the true geography of our national crisis visible. But from that perspective I have seen the crisis deepen alarmingly in recent times. We can't wait any longer for some sort of tectonic change. So while keeping the fires of reform burning, I'm sticking my nose in the Democratic tent, hoping that the Democratic nominee will offer the progressive transformation this country so desperately needs.
I suppose my optimism about the future comes down to what I think about human nature. If I thought that we were just material beings, driven purely by self-interest, then I would have to concede that we have no hope of rallying people around a noble alternative to the rescue fantasy offered by Rummy, Cheney, Cowboy George, or Arnold the "Terminator." If on the other hand I believed -- and I do -- that we are capable of both good and evil, then it's time to appeal to what is best in us, to summon "the better angels of our nature." Only then are we likely to build a nation where community and caring and compassion are not just throat-clearing openings to commencement addresses.
I've always believed this should be the goal of a healthy democracy. But I've had quite a journey when it comes to deciding the best means for getting there.
One stop along the way was on January 24, 1993, at a "Conservative Summit," in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the National Review. I gave a speech entitled "Can Conservatives Have a Social Conscience?" The event was kicked off in bombastic style by Master of Ceremonies Charlton Heston, who smugly announced that he was "one of the most politically incorrect people" because "I am heterosexual, Anglo-Saxon, married to the same woman for 49 years, and not the recipient of any entitlement of any kind."
That type of statement tends to set a certain tone. Sitting on the dais, scanning my notes, I listened with mounting horror to the speaker who preceded me, Brent Bozell, who had been the national finance chairman of the legendarily inclusive '92 Buchanan for President campaign. As Bozell's hard-right homilies were paraded in front of what, in the interest of fairness, can only be described as an adoring crowd, I asked myself two questions: "How can he and I both call ourselves Republicans?" and "Where is the nearest exit?"
Approaching the podium with trepidation, I wondered what the audience that applauded the previous speakers' harsh brand of conservatism would do with mine, which challenged the audience to rise to what I considered the core of true conservatism -- the biblical admonition that we shall be judged by what we do for the least among us.
In its article on the event, the New York Times reported that "Mrs. Huffington's goal is the redemption of the Republican Party. If she had her way, greed and selfishness will be banished forever, to be replaced by altruism, compassion, and the 'kinder, gentler' world that George Bush talked about but failed to deliver." The Times reporter, Karen De Witt, went on to express the opinion, "It is an odd notion to link altruism and compassion with conservatives, considering last year's Republican convention."
I too had been appalled by the 1992 Republican convention -- particularly Pat Buchanan's divisive speech (the one Molly Ivins memorably nailed as probably sounding better in the original German). But I believed at the time -- wrongly, as it turned out -- that I could challenge the Republican Party by harking back to the nobler traditions of its past.
The problem is not with rank-and-file Republicans but with the party's leaders. The same conservative audience that gave a standing ovation to Bozell gave a standing ovation to me. We just appealed to different parts of their brains and their psyches. I reached out to classic conservatism that sees individuals as the spiritual center of society, and expects them to obey the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Indeed, they are expected to follow the biblical precept, "To whom much is given, from him that much more shall be expected." Individuals, not government, have the responsibility to form communities, to weave a social fabric that sustains the weak, cares for the young, and nurtures those who have grown old. Without this component of social conscience, the potent doctrine of individual responsibility is reduced to an exclusively material self-interest. And individuals are reduced to little more than economic entities: producing and consuming units.
I believed just as deeply in the need for social responsibility during my Republican days as I believe in it now. But these days I draw very different conclusions from that basic principle. The reason is very simple. The social challenge I issued that morning during my speech, a gauntlet I kept throwing down until my final disillusionment with the Grand Old Party, was never taken up. The hope and expectation that people would roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty to solve social problems at the local level was never fully realized. There were never enough volunteers, never enough donations, never enough model partnerships and pilot projects set up to prove what we conservatives claimed: that we could solve America's ills without "big government."
Feeling that the whole system had to be shaken up, I cast my vote in 2000 for neither Bush nor Gore. Instead I marked my ballot for "none of the above" as a protest against the broken status quo. But that wasn't enough. So I helped organize the Shadow Conventions to coincide with the Republican convention in Philadelphia and the Democratic convention in Los Angeles and put the media spotlight on the fact that neither major party was addressing three key issues facing us: 1) the painful truth that we've become two nations, separated by an ever-widening economic gulf -- not just in income but in educational opportunities, access to health care, even in the quality of the air we breathe and our statistical chances of living to an old age; 2) the way money is corrupting our politics and campaign contributors are buying public policy; and 3) the nation's failed $40-billion-a-year war on drugs, which has turned into a war on the poor and minorities.
Then came the Bush White House -- and all it has brought with it, including Iraq, multitrillion-dollar tax cuts, corporate scandals, the gutting of environmental regulations, a record-breaking number of lost jobs, and the neglect of millions of struggling Americans. Despite this abysmal performance, there was no "loyal opposition." There was some bickering, a little partisanship, a bit of token jockeying from the other side of the aisle, but no clear alternative vision to rally around.
Last year, during the course of a thirteen-city college speaking tour, I came to a realization: it wasn't just me. To put it bluntly, Americans young and old, northerner and southerner, city slicker and country cousin, rich and poor (OK, maybe not the Bush rich) are all royally pissed off. But the pain, rage, and anxiety that came pouring out as soon as I opened the floor to questions and comments signaled that indignation had risen to a whole new level. This was not the dry, intellectual harrumphing found on the op-ed page. This was the cry of people who were ready to stop just talking and start acting.
I knew how they felt. I've always had a hard time just identifying wrongs and leaving it at that. I too wanted to take action, to move beyond the confines of jousting punditry. Which brings us to January 2003. That's when the Oregonian newspaper abruptly decided to stop carrying my syndicated column, giving as a reason: "She has dragged herself across the line from being a commentator to being an activist." The truth is that I have always seen myself as a crusading journalist in the tradition of my heroes Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, and Ida Tarbell. I have always wanted to walk my talk, which is why, two years after I helped organize the Shadow Conventions, I cofounded the Detroit Project with my friends and fellow activists, Lawrence Bender, Laurie David, and Ari Emmanuel. It's a grassroots campaign to prod Detroit to stop building gas-guzzling SUVs and start producing cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars that will allow us to break our addiction to foreign oil. That was what constituted crossing the line, in the Oregonian's memorable phrase.
Two months after the Detroit Project, I helped create the Bermuda Project to expose corporate America's growing use of shady offshore tax havens to avoid paying its fair share.
While the Shadow Conventions, the anti-SUV campaign, and the anti-tax-haven campaign were actually extensions of what I had been doing for my whole life, my next campaign definitely broke new personal ground. I ran for governor.
Though I didn't support the recall effort, once it was set in motion -- once it was definitely going to happen -- I felt it was foolish to assume it would be defeated. And I was drawn by the unprecedented opportunity it offered to elect a truly progressive governor to the world's fifth-largest economy. And to give a voice to all the people of California, not just those who could afford to buy public policy.
I also wanted to connect the dots between California's plight and the reckless economic policies of the Bush administration. And, as I ended up saying again and again and again over the course of the campaign, there was nothing more laughable than hearing Bush Republicans prattling on self-righteously about the fiscal irresponsibility of Gray Davis while ignoring the orgy of fiscal irresponsibility that the White House and the Republican Congress are hosting.
But I learned on the campaign trail that laying out clearly articulated policies and a clear critique of your opponent is not enough. And it will definitely not be enough to beat Bush in 2004. The Democratic nominee will have to have a powerful narrative to counter the very simple but very compelling "tax cuts, more tax cuts, and further tax cuts" fairy tale being put forth by the Bush White House. What I have realized is that the narrative must be exceptionally bold -- transcending not just what passes for the current Democratic vision but even the vision of the politically successful Clinton years. It has to go back to the founding of our country, to the spiritual absolute the Founding Fathers grounded America in when they declared "all men are created equal" -- a premise Abraham Lincoln called "the father of all moral principle."
It's the same moral principle FDR gave expression to when he said that "the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little." It's the same moral principle Bobby Kennedy echoed amid the social upheaval of the 1960s: "I believe that as long as there is plenty, poverty is evil."
Not only have we become unmoored from those principles, we've drifted tragically far from them. Which is why, as I learned on the campaign trail, stopping any more Republican takeovers has an urgency that supersedes the larger imperative of breaking the stranglehold of two party politics in order to challenge the broken status quo.
This difference between the urgent and the important is exactly what prompted me to drop out of the recall race when it became clear that I wouldn't win. If I had not, and Arnold Schwarzenegger had eked into the governor's office, I would not have been able to forgive myself. And even though my withdrawal ultimately proved futile, the sense of foreboding that motivated it was validated when, in his first budget, the new governor proposed cutting $4.6 billion from health care, education, and welfare programs. He had already repealed the car tax without having alternative funding for the essential local government services -- things like police and fire departments -- that the $4 billion from the car tax was earmarked for.
It's clear that the damage being done by the Republican fanatics -- whether in Washington or Sacramento -- is such that we cannot afford the kind of protest votes that are geared toward long-term reform. I didn't have a problem with Ralph Nader's running in 2000. But that was then and this is now. Now we have seen George Bush's true colors. We have seen what has happened in Iraq. We have seen what has happened to the goodwill we once enjoyed around the world. We have seen the results of his regressive economic policies. We have seen who benefits and who loses in the world according to George Bush. It's folly to pretend that it doesn't make a difference whether Bush or his Democratic opponent is in the White House. It's like trying to unring the last three years' carillon of alarms.
It's all well and good to dream about how wonderful it would be to remodel your home, but when your house is going up in flames, your first priority must be putting the fire out. Our collective priority for the near term must be to evict the Crawford squatter from the White House. Only then can we set about remodeling our democratic home. We simply can't do it in reverse.
In a very real way, the California recall race was a microcosm of everything that is going on in the country today, a showcase for the strengths and weaknesses of the two political parties. The Bush Republicans' greatest strength was the simplicity of their antitax, anti-regulation message, hand-delivered by a charismatic messenger. The Democrats' greatest failing was a partywide lack of insight, courage, and strategic acumen.
So this book is divided into four parts. The first is a chapter-and-verse diagnosis of the fanaticism that drives the Bush White House. It also offers a clear-eyed prescription: Bush cannot be treated, let alone cured. He has to be surgically removed. The second part is a close-up look at a remarkable breakthrough in Bush Republican cloning -- the rise of the charming antitax fanatic Arnold Schwarzenegger. The third part recounts and examines the Democratic Party leadership's congenital inability to stop shooting itself in the foot. It comes with a prescription: the Democrats need more than Bushwhacking and a better Medicare drug plan to regain the White House in November. Precisely what this "more" is will be found in the fourth part of the book -- my hard-earned-in-the-trenches political donation to the Democratic presidential nominee.
It's the secret weapon for beating Bush.
A president once said: "You are the generation that must decide. Will you ratify poverty and division with your apathy -- or will you build the common good with your idealism? Will you be the spectator in the renewal of your country -- or a citizen?" That president, believe it or not, was George W. Bush. He said it at a commencement address at Notre Dame in May 2001. (The transcript does not note whether he had a straight face or not.)
But he's actually getting good at saying things like this. For George W. Bush, this rhetoric is designed to mask the reality of how he governs. It's a spoken word Potemkin village. If he were speaking the truth, he would have said, "I have ratified poverty by increasing it by 3 million people. Increased poverty and growing middle-class casualties have in turn enlarged the divisions between us. Even though I never speak about apathy except in commencement addresses, I understand it because my actions can only produce a certain grinding hopelessness after a time. So do me a favor and stay on the sidelines: The last thing I need at this point is a bunch of concerned citizens in my way. And by the way, let's win one for the Gipper!"
According to Catholic teachings, "the corruption of the best is the worst." George Bush's corrupt use of the concept of "the common good" muddies the water to such a shameful degree that the idea loses all meaning. The point of government is to provide for the common good, but on George Bush's lips it is transformed into an empty platitude. The Democratic nominee has the difficult task, made harder by the clever cynicism of Bush's message mavens, of resurrecting the idea of our common good and breathing real meaning into it.
And as Bush demonstrated at Notre Dame, you cannot talk about the common good without talking about lifting people from poverty. But notice how, in the course of a single presidential pronouncement, poverty suddenly became the responsibility of apathetic college students. It's subtle trickery to equate concern and caring with a cure. Sure, a cure starts there. But, as Bush points out in the same speech, "a determined assault on poverty will require both an active government and active citizens."
This book will show how those sentiments are exactly what the Democratic nominee has to express -- and mean -- as the foundation of a vision that will defeat Bush in November. This vision must link the compelling mission of the moment -- to strengthen our country so that it can stand up to the assaults of this new millennium -- with the pursuit of the common good. A truly strong America is one that can help the less fortunate, can admit mistakes, can once again excite the admiration of people around the world, regardless of their prejudices, by its fine example.
If you accept the inherent link between the common good and a strong America, then the list of what needs to be done becomes obvious. You cannot have a strong America if one-third of eighth graders can't read. You cannot have a strong America if millions of our citizens don't have the basic resources to take care of their health. You cannot have a strong America without strong families. And you cannot have strong families with two parents each working two-and-a-half jobs just to make ends meet.
This is not a left-wing vision. People of good faith, regardless of party, understand that fairness -- rules of the game that all must abide by -- is essential to the public welfare. But fairness and nurturing and a strong safety net do not mean babying our citizens and removing life's inevitable obstacles. The common good is achieved, in large measure, through the incentives that come from competition -- as long as competition takes place on a level playing field.
Here's the message President Bush offered his audience of idealistic college grads: "The methods of the past may have been flawed, but the idealism of the past was not an illusion. Your calling is not easy, because you must do the acting and the caring. But there is fulfillment in that sacrifice, which creates hope for the rest of us. Every life you help proves that every life might be helped. The actual proves the possible. And hope is always the beginning of change."
If you closed your eyes, you would think you were listening to the ideal Democratic nominee -- not the words of a zealous right-wing ideologue who used "compassion" as a campaign slogan, then tossed it aside like a soiled tissue as soon as he stepped into the Oval Office. But when the Democratic candidate uses the same rhetoric it will have to be matched with action.
Different times require different leaders and different strategies. This book is about the coming presidential election, and an alternative moral vision of strength. Without this vision, the public will be fooled again by the Republican fanatics selling strength but meting out punishment and weakness. Ultimately, this book will argue, the Democratic nominee will have to counter the White House's culture of fear and disunity with a bold vision that acknowledges uncertainty and evil in the world without being intimidated by them. Security isn't just about protecting America from terrorists. Security is also about protecting America's families from poverty and a bleak future for their children. True strength will emerge from a vision of New Responsibility that extends beyond caring for your own family to caring for your fellow man.
Excerpted with permission from "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America," by Arianna Huffington (Miramax Books)