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Jewish World Review March 2, 2000 /25 Adar I, 5760

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Will unions rule? Indispensable to Gore, labor may be the campaign's secret winner --
HEADING INTO SUPER TUESDAY, the 2000 political landscape has already been transformed by two unexpected developments. The one most obvious in the reportage is the emergence of John McCain as a candidate of reform. The other, going almost without notice, is the emergence of organized labor as a major political force. McCain's appeal is not as original as the press thinks; it resembles that of two other Naval Academy graduates who ran for president. Like Jimmy Carter, McCain promises not to lie to the American people; like Ross Perot, he promises to vanquish Washington's lobbyists and iron triangles and to solve problems by convening panels of experts.

Like Carter and Perot, McCain has stirred enthusiasm among voters impatient with Washington gridlock. But they haven't thought much about whether he, like Carter and Perot, would have trouble delivering on his promises. His centerpiece, campaign finance reform, has long been stalled in the Senate. McCain argues that his election would apply irresistible pressure on Congress. "I'll take names" if members oppose him, he says. "I'll make 'em famous."

But the other new development, the rising power of unions, assures permanent deadlock on campaign finance. Under current law, unions are the only organizations that can take your money out of your paycheck without your permission and use it for their politics. Almost every Democrat will oppose any bill that deprives union leaders of this advantage. Almost every Republican will oppose any bill that keeps it as is. President McCain can take all the names he wants, but he can't force either side to back down on such a central issue. Look for campaign finance reform to go the way of Jimmy Carter's energy bill or the Clinton health care plan.

Social Democrats. Now consider the effects of the second major change in the political landscape, the emergence of labor unions as the most powerful force in the Democratic Party. Since John Sweeney's election as AFL-CIO president in October 1995, it has hired talented staff dedicated to a Social Democratic agenda, and it provided major aid to Democrats in the 1998 election. Last October, at the behest of AFSCME and other public employee unions, the AFL-CIO took the unusual step of endorsing Al Gore for president. In Iowa, union operatives were heavy on the ground for Gore, and he won overwhelming margins in counties with medium-size factories and large union memberships. In New Hampshire, where union members are scarcer, union operatives may have provided the 4 percent margin by which he beat Bill Bradley. Gore owes labor big.

Gore has courted unions for years and tailored his platform to them. His health care plan, criticized by Bradley as too modest, is only the first step, Gore insists, on the way to national health insurance–the unions' goal. He is careful everywhere to praise teachers in the same words used by teachers-union leaders; he stoutly opposes vouchers, even for minority students in failing central city schools. His program to build classrooms will provide plenty of new members for the building trades and teachers unions. True, he used to oppose the AFL-CIO by backing NAFTA and other trade issues. But in February he endorsed the unions' insistence on labor and environmental protections in future trade agreements–which in practice means no agreements at all. Administration officials have had to prod him to restate his support of its biggest trade proposal, allowing China into the World Trade Organization. But President Gore, if he keeps his commitment to labor, would reverse the consensus for expanding free trade that has prevailed from Franklin Roosevelt to the early Clin- ton years.

A Gore administration would also follow the AFL-CIO in rejecting individual retirement accounts, even though by about 2014 payroll tax revenues will not be enough to pay for benefits–which means either a tax increase or a raid on general revenues. The era of big government may be just beginning.

The unions have replaced the feminist left as the Democrats' chief source of energy. Feminists lost moral authority when they abandoned principle to support Bill Clinton against impeachment, thereby establishing themselves as part of a very old profession; their recent endorsement of Gore, despite his lies about his former votes against abortion, showed they charge a very low price. The feminist left never opposed–never much cared about–the Clinton administration's cautious macroeconomic policies, its rejection of higher taxes after 1993, or its moves toward freer trade. The union left cares, and opposes them all. A Gore administration put in place by labor muscle may look less like a third Clinton administration and more like a European-style Social Democratic government, with policies leading in time to higher taxes, away from markets, and toward bureaucracy. McCain's calls for campaign finance reform have dazzled reporters and many voters. But the emergence of the unions as the dominant force in Democratic politics could have much more effect in the long run.

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


02/15/00: A reformers' party
01/03/00: The voters rule: In Manchester, Mexico, and Moscow, an imperfect system works
01/19/00: The era of Big Promises
12/08/99: Welcome to the world of 'good enough'
11/2/99: Just saying no
11/12/99: Money talks, as it should
10/28/99: Mexico votes – for real
10/03/99: Going against type
09/28/99: The unions go public
08/31/99: China's strait flush
08/25/99: The first two contests
08/03/99: Paddling upstream
07/08/99: Taking Hillary seriously
06/22/99: Trying the lawyers
06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©2000, Michael Barone