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The “Teach-the-Democrats-a-Lesson” Myth

If my e-mail inbox is any indication, many American progressives plan to use the Nov. 2 election as an opportunity to “teach the Democrats a lesson” by either not voting or casting ballots for third parties, even if this contributes to the expected Republican (and Tea Party) landslide.

If my e-mail inbox is any indication, many American progressives plan to use the Nov. 2 election as an opportunity to “teach the Democrats a lesson” by either not voting or casting ballots for third parties, even if this contributes to the expected Republican (and Tea Party) landslide.

The thinking seems to be that the loss of the congressional majorities will punish the Democrats for accepting half-measures and compromises on issues from health care and financial reform to job stimulus and war. The Left’s hope apparently is that the chastened Democrats will then shift toward more progressive positions and be more assertive.

However, modern American political history tells us that this strategy never works. After the four key elections in which many progressives abandoned the governing Democrats – in 1968, 1980, 1994 and 2000 – not only did Republicans take U.S. politics further to the right, but the surviving Democrats tacked more to the center and grew more timid.

All four elections also were marred by GOP dirty tricks that drew little or no reaction from either the governing Democrats or the progressives, emboldening the slash-and-burn Republicans to operate in an ever more audacious style.

Tragically, too, the Left’s sideline-sitting contributed to the unnecessary deaths of millions of people in wars from Vietnam and Central America to Iraq and Afghanistan. Arguably even worse, U.S. inaction on global warming – a neglect surely to be continued if Republicans and Tea Partiers are victorious in Election 2010 – may doom the future of a livable planet.

In other words, the “teach-the-Dems-a-lesson” strategy not only doesn’t work, it’s extremely dangerous.

The Vietnam Precedent

Take, for instance, the pivotal election of 1968. The Left was furious with Democratic President Lyndon Johnson for the Vietnam War and with the Democratic presidential nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, for the bloody Chicago convention.

Many on the Left refused to support Humphrey, even though they knew that would help the election chances of the divisive and disreputable Richard Nixon. Some anti-war activists voted for minor third-party candidates while others simply sat out Election Day, allowing Nixon to win one of the closest elections in U.S. history by less than one percentage point.

However, we now know – based on declassified information from Johnson’s presidential library – that Johnson was on the verge of a peace settlement with the North Vietnamese in Paris and that Humphrey’s election likely would have led to a rapid end of the Vietnam War.

Nixon, who was getting briefings on the progress in Paris, knew that a breakthrough was imminent. The evidence is also now clear that Nixon, possessing that knowledge, let his campaign make contacts with the South Vietnamese government behind Johnson’s back, promising President Nguyen van Thieu a better deal if he boycotted the Paris talks.

Thieu did as Nixon’s campaign wished, refusing to attend the peace talks, thus torpedoing hopes for a quick end to U.S. participation in the war. [For details, see’s “The Significance of Nixon’s ‘Treason.’”]

After taking office, President Nixon had no choice but to continue – and to expand – the war in pursuit of a better outcome for Thieu, who after all knew of Nixon’s treachery.

The additional four years of war resulted in the deaths of more than 20,000 U.S. soldiers and millions of Indochinese in Vietnam and Cambodia, yet the final peace agreement mirrored what had been available to the United States in 1968.

Nixon’s nasty, take-no-prisoners style also shook the political foundations of the United States. The nation grew bitterly divided; parents turned against their own children; war-fueled inflation ate away at incomes; hopes for alleviating poverty vanished; and Americans came to doubt their government could accomplish anything good.

The national wounds inflicted by that ugly era have never fully healed. Much of that, however, might have been avoided if disaffected progressives had swallowed their anger and cast their ballots for Humphrey.

‘Good for the Country’

During Nixon’s Paris-peace-talk gambit, the governing Democrats also revealed what would become a pattern for them, an unwillingness to expose political wrongdoing by Republicans ostensibly to avert partisan divisions for “the good of the country.”

President Johnson was aware of what he called Nixon’s “treason” in the days before Election 1968 and was tempted to expose the illicit contacts. However, other senior Democrats fretted that exposure of such treachery might not prevent Nixon from winning, yet could destroy his legitimacy as president.

“Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected,” said Defense Secretary Clark Clifford in a conference call with Johnson on Nov. 4, 1968. “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”

Clifford’s argument carried the day. Johnson remained silent, Nixon won, and Johnson carried the secret of Nixon’s peace-talk sabotage to his grave.

So, in 1968, the U.S. political process was undergoing three dangerous transformations. The Left was separating itself from practical politics; the Republicans were learning that they could win by playing dirty; and the governing Democrats were shying away from demanding accountability for Republican abuses.

Over the next 42 years, all three of these patterns have deepened, combining to create a political crisis for the nation.

Republican Extremes

Over the past four decades, the only times when the Left and the governing Democrats have pulled together in a meaningful way were when the Republicans were in power and when that power went to their heads.

That was the case when Nixon, who had locked himself into a continuation of the Vietnam War, went nearly crazy in denouncing anti-war protesters as “bums” and going to extremes to block publication of the Pentagon Papers secret history of the war in 1971.

Nixon’s paranoia then led him to commit felonies surrounding his Watergate political spying operation, a scandal that played out from 1972 until Nixon’s resignation in 1974. The Watergate case was one of the few times when the governing Democrats and the Left mostly were on the same page, objecting to Nixon’s abuses.

However, whenever the Democrats were in power and had the potential to accomplish something meaningful, the split always reopened. The governing pragmatists sought incremental change in an often difficult political/media environment, while the idealists demanded sweeping reforms regardless of public resistance.

The division opened up during Jimmy Carter’s presidency when the Left viewed Carter as too centrist and too cautious, prompting a primary challenge from liberal Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1980. Kennedy’s bid fell short but left behind deep antagonisms between the two wings of the Democratic Party.

Many progressives turned a deaf ear to Carter’s warnings about what Ronald Reagan’s election would do to the country. Some backed independent John Anderson or other minor candidates, and some simply didn’t vote.

Iranian Crisis

As it turned out, Carter – like Johnson and Humphrey – was facing Republican skullduggery. The evidence is now overwhelming that elements of Reagan’s campaign contacted Iranian officials who were then holding 52 Americans hostage, a crisis that was eroding Carter’s remaining political support.

Like Nixon with Thieu, Reagan’s team appears to have offered the Iranians a better deal than Carter did, in this case, promises of military hardware via Israel that Iran needed for its conflict with neighboring Iraq.

Failing to win the hostages’ release, Carter saw his reelection hopes dashed. With the first anniversary of the humiliating hostage-taking coming on the day of the election, the polls showed a suddenly widening lead for Reagan who coasted to an easy victory. The hostages were finally released immediately after Reagan was sworn in on Jan. 20, 1981.

(As with the Nixon-Vietnam scheme, governing Democrats recoiled at the idea of holding the Republicans accountable even when extensive evidence of Reagan’s Iran contacts came to light in the last half of the 1980s and the early 1990s. For “the good of the country,” Democrats again swept the evidence under the rug.) [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Reagan’s election marked another turning point in American history, and it was not a positive one. President Carter, for all his shortcomings, had begun addressing some of the big problems confronting the United States, including the need for alternative energy sources, Middle East peace, and human rights as a core value in U.S. foreign policy.

Reagan, however, countered with a “don’t worry, be happy” approach to the future. Tax cuts would swell revenues; no need to worry about your gas-guzzlers; government was the problem, not the rapidly expanding power of multinational corporations; human rights were for sissies.

In selling his policies, Reagan also was aided by a rapidly expanding right-wing news media that was bankrolled to challenge the remnants of the Watergate-era press corps. Meanwhile, the Left largely abandoned the goal of having a national media infrastructure. [For details, see’s “The Left’s Media Miscalculation.”]

Ugly Americans

Despite the harm that Reagan’s economic policies did to the United States – corporations accelerating the shipping of jobs overseas, unions broken, Carter’s solar panels ripped from the White House roof – perhaps Reagan’s most destructive actions came in his global strategies.

Reagan unleashed right-wing “death squads” in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua – killing tens of thousands. To challenge the Soviet Union, he funded Islamist radicals in Afghanistan who would become the backbone of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. He acquiesced to Pakistan’s building of nuclear bombs, perhaps today’s greatest threat to world security.

To justify spending hundreds of billions of dollars more on U.S. military hardware, Reagan also oversaw the politicization of the CIA’s analytical division so it would exaggerate the Soviet threat in the 1980s. Two decades later, that perversion of U.S. intelligence would help justify the invasion of Iraq with “fixed” analytical reports about non-existent WMDs.

In terms of government personnel, Reagan credentialed a young group of intellectuals and ideologues who became known as the neoconservatives. To justify U.S. interventions abroad, these neocons felt justified in using propaganda techniques to manipulate the American people, herding them like cattle in a desired direction. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

Many on the American Left who had abandoned Jimmy Carter were aghast at what Reagan did, especially the atrocities in Central America. But the blame was put mostly on the hapless ex-President and the governing Democrats.
There was very little soul-searching on the Left, which viewed itself as essentially blameless for the catastrophes that the Reagan years wrought.

The Clinton Years

The Reagan excesses, especially the mirage of tax cuts producing extra revenue and the myth that the United States didn’t need an industrial base, created so much economic pain by 1992 that Bill Clinton was able to exploit a split in the conservative vote – between President George H.W. Bush and billionaire Ross Perot – and slip into the White House.

Clinton’s election also came at a time when evidence was finally pouring in regarding political and national security crimes of the early Reagan years, including the Reagan campaign’s arms-for-hostages deals with Iran in both 1980 and later with the Iran-Contra Affair and Reagan’s secret orders to help arm Iran’s enemies in Iraq.

In late 1992, so much new evidence of Republican guilt was arriving at a House task force investigating the 1980 hostage crisis that chief counsel Lawrence Barcella said he urged the chairman, Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, to extend the inquiry for a few more months, but Hamilton declined citing political difficulties.

Instead, with the goal of maintaining some bipartisan comity in Washington at the start of the Clinton administration, Hamilton’s task force concealed much of the new evidence and issued a report asserting Republican innocence.

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In a similar way, the new Clinton administration helped clean up for Reagan and his team on the continuing Iran-Contra investigation (which represented a sequel to the 1980 Republican-Iranian contacts) and on the Iraq-gate scandal regarding clandestine military assistance to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

High Hopes

As Bill Clinton became the first Democratic president in a dozen years, the governing Democrats had high hopes that they could make progress on some difficult issues that had been ignored under Republican rule, including health care and environmental initiatives. The Democrats also moved to get the nation’s deficit under control, approving a modest rise in income tax rates.

Yet, for all the Clinton administration’s hopes for bipartisanship, the Democrats instead encountered near unanimous Republican opposition to every major initiative. Not a single GOP vote was cast in favor of Clinton’s budget in either the House or the Senate.

Instead, the Republicans relied on their expanding right-wing media, which had added powerful AM radio programming to an influential roster of newspapers, magazines and book publishing houses. Voices on the Right like Rush Limbaugh made every day a fiesta of Clinton bashing.

As the Democrats headed toward Election 1994, the Republicans and their right-wing media allies rallied the conservative base with wild stories about Bill and Hillary Clinton as a kind of Arkansas-based Bonnie and Clyde, leaving a string of death and corruption in their wake.

Though political pundits cite the collapse of health care reform as the key blow to the Democratic majorities, the media-driven hysteria about the Clintons also was a major factor in the right-wing tidal wave that was building. The failure of the American Left to invest in a media infrastructure to counter the Right was another little-noticed factor. A strategic media imbalance was forming.

Yet, even if the Left had worked on building a media infrastructure, it’s not clear that progressive voices would have done much to protect the Clintons from the right-wing attacks. To many on the Left, the Clintons were a couple who had long since sold out their principles to corporate interests.

So, with both American progressives and mainstream Democrats discouraged and demoralized, the Republican tsunami in November 1994 wiped out not only the fragile Democratic Senate majority but ended the long-time Democratic control of the House.

Reagan Redux

The Republicans saw their resounding victory as a mandate to resume Reagan’s assault on Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Trying to assert his “relevance,” Clinton conceded that “the era of big government is over.”

For the next six years, the Republicans and the right-wing media derided government programs that tried to help the middle class and the poor, while pushing through more and more deregulation of corporations, including repeal of a New Deal law separating commercial and investment banks. The repeal passed with the support of the Clinton administration.

Besides trying to dismantle much of the federal government, the Republicans hounded Clinton, finally impeaching him in the House for lying about an extramarital affair. Though Clinton survived a humiliating Senate trial, the Republicans were optimistic about regaining total control of Washington in Election 2000.

The Republican presidential nominee, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, was a thinly qualified scion of a political royal family. Opposite him was Clinton’s wonky Vice President Al Gore, who was an expert on the complex workings of government and who had a particular passion for the environment, alternative energy and the pressing need to address global warming.

In my view, Election 2000 may have represented the last real chance for the world to turn back from environmental devastation and from the dangerous political instability that will follow. In 2000, the future of the planet was truly in the balance – and Gore, despite his lack of charisma, may have been the best person for the job, at least the best that modern U.S. politics could produce.

However, much of the Left viewed Gore as an unacceptable centrist. A number of prominent progressives also rejected my warnings about the dangers posed by Bush, particularly my concern that he would restore the neoconservatives to positions of power over foreign policy.

I was especially alarmed by Bush’s choice of Dick Cheney to be his vice presidential running mate. I had covered Cheney for years when he was in Congress and knew him to be a rigid ideologue who was much closer philosophically to the neocons than was generally understood.

Bush Illusions

At the time, most political analysts of all stripes viewed Bush as an Establishment Republican. They accepted his self-description as “a compassionate conservative” and thought he would govern with his father’s moderation, surrounded by his father’s old foreign policy hands, the likes of Brent Scowcroft and James Baker.

I was assured by several left-wing political analysts that I was overly alarmed at the prospects of a neocon revival if Bush won.

This widely held viewpoint fed into the notion on the Left that Bush would not be much different from Gore and that Election 2000, therefore, represented a good opportunity to “teach the Democrats a lesson” by showing them that they couldn’t “take the Left for granted.”

So, many progressives decided that they would back Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. To rally more support on the Left, Nader’s campaign touted what may be one of the biggest – and most dangerous – lies ever told in American politics, that “there’s not a dime worth of difference” between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Nader succeeded not only in siphoning off votes from Gore but his attacks on the Vice President – often echoing similar attack lines from the Republicans – frustrated the Gore campaign’s efforts to gain momentum.

A Stolen Election

Though Gore still managed to outpoll Bush by about a half million votes nationwide and almost surely would have beaten Bush in the key state of Florida if all legally cast votes were counted, Bush used a combination of clever lawyering and hardball politics to seize the White House. [For details, see Neck Deep.]

To this day, very few Nader supporters will admit that they contributed to Bush’s tainted victory, although it should be obvious that Nader’s votes in Florida – if most would have gone to Gore – would have put the election too far out of reach for Bush to steal.

A Gore presidency also would have taken the country in a far different direction. Most significantly, he might have made significant progress in getting the United States to face up to the crisis of global warming, an existential threat to mankind that Bush studiously ignored.

It may be a bitter irony that the one major political accomplishment of America’s Green Party will be that it helped condemn the world to environmental disaster.
Whether Nader backers acknowledge their complicity or not, the hard truth is that the American Left – in this attempt to “teach the Democrats a lesson” – contributed to the dangerous ascension of George W. Bush to power.

Besides his inaction on global warming, Bush restored the neocons to key positions throughout the foreign policy bureaucracy and, after 9/11, adopted their aggressive strategy for seeking violent “regime change” in Muslim countries considered hostile to Israel.

As a result of Bush’s “global war on terror” and his invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, hundreds of thousands have died and many more – including many children and other noncombatants – have lost limbs and suffered maiming.

Bush also trampled on traditional constitutional and legal principles with his assertion of unlimited presidential powers that included his secret wiretapping of citizens, his waiving of habeas corpus rights to a fair trial, and his torturing prisoners held in clandestine prisons.

At home, Bush’s tax cuts mostly for the rich and his further deregulation of corporations contributed to a bubble-and-bust economy that – by the end of his eight years in office – had devastated the American middle class, which had grown during the Clinton years but was rapidly shrinking by late 2008 and early 2009 with the disappearance of millions of jobs.

Brief Reunion

Because of the alarm over the Bush administration, the Left and the governing Democrats found common ground in Election 2006 and 2008. In Election 2008, many progressives set aside their concerns about Barack Obama’s accommodating style of politics and rallied behind the first major-party African-American candidate for U.S. president.

Obama’s historic victory in November 2008 touched many progressives as it did other Americans, though some on the Left resisted any sentimentality.

On Election Night, I encountered Ralph Nader at the make-shift studio in downtown Washington where was handling its election coverage. He had run again as an independent candidate but had gotten far fewer votes than at his high point in 2000.

Nader was attacking Obama and the governing Democrats, making clear that he would continue opposing them unless they turned to him for advice and direction. He said that if they didn’t, he would be like “the canary in the coal mine,” an indication that Obama was another centrist sell-out.

No doubt, many progressives believe that Nader’s comment was prescient. The Obama administration did disappoint many of them by making too many concessions to the Republicans in a quixotic search for bipartisanship.

With the Republicans moving almost in lockstep against Obama’s initiatives — and resorting to Senate filibusters at an unprecedented rate — Obama and the Democrats did scale back their proposals, like the job stimulus plan, and they sacrificed key features, such as the public option for health insurance, in their bid for legislative accomplishments.

Obama also came in for progressive criticism for refusing to hold Bush and his subordinates accountable for torture and other war crimes, another example of governing Democrats shying away from a divisive struggle that they might deem not “good for the country.”

Though Obama did begin winding down the Iraq War as he had promised, he acquiesced to the insistence of Bush holdovers at the Pentagon, including Gen. David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, for an escalation of the war in Afghanistan. [See’s “How Bush Holdovers Trapped Obama on Afghan War.”]

The Right’s Narrative

While many on the Left grumbled about Obama’s centrist approach, the Right sold millions of Americans on an entirely different narrative, that Obama was a closet socialist who was taking over the economy and wasting tax dollars on useless jobs programs.

Again, the Right’s media dominance, contrasted with the Left’s media weakness, has played a key role in convincing a large segment of the population that whatever slur is directed at Obama and the Democrats is true.

This media dynamic, combined with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling permitting unlimited corporate spending on political ads, has thrown the Democrats profoundly on the defensive, with many of them running away from their votes on health care and stimulus spending.

To compound this crisis facing the Democrats, many on the American Left have chosen this moment to repeat the experiences of 1968, 1980, 1994 and 2000 – determined to “teach the Democrats a lesson” by sitting out the election or voting for third parties.

There is little indication that these progressives have learned anything from the outcomes of those four earlier elections. Nobody seems to be asking the pertinent question: “Has that technique ever worked?”

Instead of the Left’s goal of pulling the governing Democrats and the American public to the left, the undeniable direction of U.S. politics (and media) has been to the right.

After 42 years, the Republicans are far more right-wing than Richard Nixon (and arguably even crazier), and most governing Democrats are far more centrist than the likes of Tip O’Neill, Lyndon Johnson and the old Democratic lions of that earlier era.

In other words, the Left’s notion of “teaching the Democrats a lesson” is a myth. It may make some progressives feel morally pure, but it doesn’t work. And, the results of the last 42 years should make clear that the idea is not only folly but it is dangerous.

If the pundits are correct and the Democrats go down to a crushing defeat on Nov. 2, the result will not be more progressive legislation but even less; not more spending on green jobs and a rebuilt infrastructure but more neglect; not a strengthening of the middle class but even starker financial inequities and enhanced corporate power; not a reordering of priorities away from the military-industrial complex but more tough-guy foreign policies.

Indeed, some of the more extreme Tea Party-backed candidates have made clear that their ultimate goal is the total repeal of FDR’s New Deal. For both governing Democrats and disaffected progressives, the results of Election 2010 could well prove catastrophic.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there. Or go to

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