When last we met, The Last Chance Democracy Café’s newest customer, Zach, had stopped by in search of a few laughs. Instead, he found himself in the company of three elderly partisans discussing economic inequality and its impact on American democracy — a conversation that could easily drive a man to drink. Fortunately, there was a lot of that going on, too.
The Last Chance Democracy Café:
A Matter of Money
by Steven C. Day
When you first enter The Last Chance Democracy Café, you pass under a large neon sign that reads, “Patriot Act Free Zone.” That earned a visit from the Secret Service.
“We have been told that subversive comments about the Bush administration have been made in this establishment,” said Agent Green haughtily.
“I certainly hope so,” I replied.
Agent Green wasn’t amused. Her partner, Agent Carlson, looked mostly bored. The two questioned me for about 40 minutes (Winston was there as my legal representative). Ultimately, they concluded that I pose no threat to the life of the president. They could easily have added that wet paper bags have little to fear from me.
“These are dangerous times,” said Agent Green as she was leaving.
“Thank God we have our constitution to see us through them,” I replied, shaking her hand.
* * *
“Zach, have you heard the old saying that money is the mother’s milk of politics?” asked Tom.
“Well, that’s a crock. There’s nothing anywhere near that wholesome about it. Money is more like the sulfuric acid of politics — corroding, distorting and ultimately destroying the process.”
“But it carries the big stick,” added Horace.
“Just look at the last election,” agreed Winston.
At the other end of the lounge three couples were playing “Republican darts.” The café has seven dartboards, each featuring the face of a particularly annoying conservative (trying to whittle down the possible candidates during the weekly selection process is a killer). At the end of each week, we count up the holes to determine the most dartworthy conservative.
As we were talking, one of the players missed the John Ashcroft dartboard, grazing another player’s arm.
“A typical bunch of Democrats,” quipped Winston, “better at throwing darts at each other than at the Republicans.”
Horace pressed on. “By any reckoning, 2002 should have been the Democrats’ year . . . especially in the senate. The party out of power almost always gains seats in off year elections and the Democrats had only 14 senate seats to defend, compared to 20 for the Republicans.”
“And the conditions in the country cried out for a change,” added Tom. “The economy was in the toilet, the Enron scandal had broken open and there were strong indications that the Bush crowd blew opportunities to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.”
“They should have smoked the bastards in 2002,” said Winston, “but instead . . .”
“Instead,” said Horace, “they got their clocks cleaned.”
Zach set his beer on the table. The message on the coaster read, “Feed Children, Not Corporations.” In case you haven’t noticed, the politics of The Last Chance Democracy Café is decidedly liberal. Actually, it would probably be more accurate to say that it’s decidedly anti-conservative. It says something about my business acumen, I suppose, that I picked a theme for the place that’s certain to piss off many of the people with the most money to spend.
“I know a lot of people thought the Democrats ran a bad campaign,” said Zach.
Horace shook his head in the mournful way of a parent forced to confront the failings of a favored child. “You’ll get no argument on that here. I think they must have brought back the guy who came up with New Coke to run the campaign.”
“There’s a new Coke . . . ?” asked Zach.
God, I thought to myself, am I really that old?
“For Christ’s sake,” said Winston, tearing me out of my momentary mid-life crisis. “How do you lose congress to a party that’s led by Tom DeLay? I mean, every time I look at the guy, I half expect to see his head spin around like that little girl in the Exorcist.”
“Now, to be fair,” Horace began again, “the war . . .”
“God damn it!” barked Winston. “What is it with liberals and this fairness crap. Do you think conservatives spend one bloody minute worrying about whether they’re being fair to us. Hell no. they’re in a street fight — no holds barred. Meanwhile, we liberals try to follow the blasted Marquess of Queensberry Rules. No wonder we’re getting our butts kicked.”
“I was talking about being fair to the Democrats, Winston, so calm . . .”
“Hell, that’s worse. You’re worried about being fair to the Democrats? Don’t bother. The whole lot of ‘em today put together don’t have half the balls of Harry Truman. Look at the way they’ve been letting Bush roll right over them . . . . I know, I know . . . they’re a hundred times better than the Republicans. And I still hold my nose and vote for the pansies. But worrying about being fair to them? Give me a break.”
Horace could only laugh. There are few forces in nature as unstoppable as Winston on a tear –– especially when he’s right. “Okay, you win. Forget fairness. But you have to admit that the Democrats’ job in 2002 was made much harder by having Bush all gussied up in his commander in chief war feathers.”
“No . . . you’re right,” conceded Winston. “There’s no denying it. The draft-dodging-warier-prince did a hell of a job of wrapping his unworthy carcass up in the American flag.”
As you may have noticed, Winston’s comments were growing “stronger” as the evening (and the drinking) wore on. This happens often, and it can come as something of a surprise to new customers in the café, who, when they first meet him sober tend to assume that, like blue cheese and moonshine whisky, he’s already about as strong as the species can get.
Horace persevered. “But the truth is that neither bad campaigning by the Democrats nor rally-around-the-flag opportunism by Bush is what ultimately decided the election. The Republicans won the 2002 election the good-old-fashioned way — they bought it.”
The facts bear Horace out. The GOP outspent the Democrats in the 2002 congressional election cycle by a full 42 percent –– almost $200 million. When you consider how close the results were in many of the key races, there’s little doubt that control of congress in 2002 was decided largely by dollars and cents.
“And you ain’t seen nothing yet,” noted Tom. “People in the know predict that in 2004 the Republicans will out fundraise the Democrats across the board by at least two-to-one. Bush personally will likely do even better. By the time you figure everything in, he may well end up in a position to outspend his Democratic opponent by as much as five-to-one . . .”
“There hasn’t been a mismatch like that since the duchy of Grand Fenwick declared war against the United States in The Mouse That Roared,” said Winston.
Horace took a quick swig of beer, then said, “Never underestimate the power of that kind of money. And here I just have to talk about senate race in Minnesota . . . it’s actually a bad example in some ways, because it’s one of the few races where the Democrats actually kept up in local spending. But it shows the power of money like nothing else. The GOP spent over $10 million to elect Norm Coleman to the senate. $10 Million! For Norm ‘I’ve never had a principle I wouldn’t gladly trade in’ Coleman . . . ”
“And all those greenbacks did the trick,” said Winston, shaking his head. “I mean, for crimony sakes, electing Norm Coleman over Walter Mondale is like deciding to eat a frozen burrito at a Quick Trip, instead of a filet mignon at a five star restaurant.”
Of course, viewed from the perspective of the real world of political finance, Winston’s comments were entirely beside the point. Very few of Coleman’s big money contributors bought into the campaign because they thought he was better qualified than Paul Wellstone or Walter Mondale. They backed him for a more pragmatic reason — they wanted his vote in favor of Bush’s make-the-rich-even-richer agenda. And, sure enough, just six mouths after the election, Bush’s second huge tax give-away to the wealthy passed the senate by just one vote.
It would seem they got their money’s worth.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not doubting that a lot of true blue Republicans in Minnesota really did think that Norm Coleman’s candidacy was the best thing to hit the state since the glaciers that dug up the ten thousand lakes, though God alone knows how they could have felt that way (and personally I suspect that God is still shaking his/her head over it). But those aren’t the people, for the most part, who gave the big ($1000 maximum at the time — now increased to $2,000) contributions to Coleman’s campaign.
“K Street’s contributions to the GOP have been paying off like a rigged slot machine ever since the Bush Boys rode into town,” said Tom. “And tax cuts are just the tip of the gold-crusted iceberg. God, where to begin . . . ? Are you, for example, a major GOP campaign contributor whose business is being inconvenienced by pesky regulations designed to protect the environment, consumers and workers? No problem! Consider them null and void. You say that your corporation wants to fill the relevant regulatory agencies and boards with fox-in-the-henhouse industry insiders? Hey, sounds good to us. Just send up the list of names you want appointed. Your company wants to drill for oil, cut down trees and build roads on pristine wilderness lands? Go for it. I mean, hell, whoever heard of a caribou making a fat campaign contribution?”
But the foulest payoffs of them all, added Tom, have to be the multi-million and even multi-billion dollar no-bid contracts the administration keeps passing out for the “reconstruction” of Iraq. Just look at Cheney’s old company, Halliburton. When you consider all of the sweetheart government contracts it’s raked in, the rate of return on its Republican political contributions has to be better than a thousand percent.
“And with that kind of return on their money,” said Horace in a sour voice, “you can bet they’re going to keep right on investing in the good old GOP.”
It had just turned midnight in The Last Chance Democracy Café and, as happens every night at the witching hour, the sound system began to play “Hail to the Chief.” To Zach’s clear bewilderment Horace, Winston and Tom all stood up, holding their glasses high in salute.
“Considering how you guys feel about Bush, I’m surprised . . .”
“Three cheers for President Gore,” shouted Tom
“Hip, Hip, Hurray –– Hip, Hip, Hurray –– Hip, Hip, Hurray.”
Then they returned to their seats as though nothing had happened.
Zach shook his head. Then, I guess, he decided it was time to shake things up a bit again. “In all fairness though,” he began, “don’t contributions by labor unions to the Democrats largely offset . . .”
“Are you guys deliberately trying to piss me off with all this fairness shit?” Winston interrupted.
“Sorry . . . poor choice of words,” retreated Zach. Trying to shake things up with Winston, as Zach had just discovered, can be a hazardous undertaking.
“Don’t let that old grump intimidate you,” Horace smiled. “But what you’re saying about unions, Zach . . . it’s a myth. Labor contributes less than $1 for every $10 contributed by industry.”
“Which is not to say that organized labor isn’t important to the Democrats,” cautioned Tom. “It is . . . it’s critically important. Which is a big part of the reason why Bush and the GOP have declared war against unions.”
Tom wasn’t exaggerating. The expansiveness of Bush’s attack on the rights of workers has been breathtaking. he’s proposed new regulations that will literally bury unions in paperwork, issued multiple anti-union executive orders, fought to prevent union representation and civil service protections for 170,000 workers in the new Homeland Security Department and is working to outsource hundreds of thousands of government jobs to the private sector where they will largely be filled by low pay non-union workers (often employed, need I add, by major GOP campaign donors).
“I’ll bet Bush thinks Norma Rae is the name of one of his friends’ yachts,” huffed Winston. “That’s how attuned the guy is to the concerns of working people.”
“But attacking unions is just one part of the overall GOP strategy to undercut Democratic funding,” said Tom. “Tom DeLay and other Republican honchos have also been strong-arming corporate donors to reduce their giving to Democrats.”
“In other words, they want them to exchange class rings and go steady with the GOP,” added Horace. “And it’s working. Just 10 years ago, industry divided its contributions about 50-50 between the two parties. Today, the Republicans are beating out the Democrats by as much as five-to-one in many industry sectors.”
“Tort reform is another part of the package,” continued Tom. “Trial lawyers are big contributors to the Democrats. So anytime the GOP can force through legislation that makes it harder for injured people to recover in lawsuits, they score a twofer — paying off their corporate sugar daddies and undercutting Democratic fundraising.”
The couple who had been making out in the corner booth were leaving now, still locked in a lustful embrace. They seemed to have a clear idea of where they were going next and I’m guessing that it wasn’t the library.
“Ah yes,” hummed Winston. “Two more success stories for abstinence-only sex education.”
Never one to allow the subject of human sexuality to pass quietly into the night, Winston then turned to Zach.
“So, you always use a condom, right?” he asked.
“Well . . . yeah, I mean . . . I guess.”
“Good, because you know, when you have unprotected sex the terrorists win.”
“Leave the boy alone,” laughed Horace.
“Don’t worry, I can protect myself,” smiled Zach.
“So we just heard,” said Winston.
Horace tried again. “Getting back to politics, Zach, do you see any trend developing here on the topic of campaign financing?”
“Sure. The Republicans are reeling in more and more bread. At the same time, they’re making it tough for the Democrats to . . . I guess, even come close to keeping up.”
“Right. And, in the meanwhile, in the elections for the U.S. House in 2002, the candidate who spent the most money won the election 95 percent of the time.”
“So I guess your telling me . . . we should expect to see more and more Republicans being elected.”
“It isn’t a lock cinch, but if things don’t change that’s looking like the most likely scenario. And that’s not even taking into account crap like the Texas redistricting power grab.”
“And then . . .”
“And then the GOP will have even more power to make even more political payoffs to their benefactors, who will, of course, then contribute even more money. And so on and so on and so on.”
Zach thought for a moment about what to say next. I think it was important to him that he sound smart. He needn’t have worried. I happen to know that everyone at the table already thought he was smart.
“So I guess what your telling me” he said at last, “. . . is that somewhere along the line of all these tits-for-tats we’ll reach that point of no return you talked about before, where realistically the Democrats can simply no longer compete.”
“No,” said Horace gently. “That’s all true certainly, but there’s more to it than that. Remember, that the great battle of American democracy isn’t just between Democrats and Republicans, but between liberal democracy itself and plutocracy. And there’s a lot more involved in the current rise of American plutocracy than campaign financing . . .”
“Okay . . .”
“. . . but I should warn you, covering that topic would take awhile,” said Horace.
“I’ve got the time if you guys do.”
“Fair enough,” said Winston. “But first I need to pee.”
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001