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Richard (RJ) Eskow Headshot

How "Centrist" Democrats Are Helping Conservatives - and Failing America's Moms

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So a corporate Democratic lobbyist named Hillary Rosen made a gaffe about Ann Romney's resumé. So what? The reality is that moms of all ages have been wounded by an obsolete and misguided consensus among Washington elites -- a consensus that is too often mislabeled as 'centrism.'

This false centrism is based on an utterly discredited ideology of deregulation and government austerity -- an ideology that has the GOP in its iron grip and controls much of the Democratic Party apparatus. The Republicans have become too radical to save, but the Democrats need to see the light -- and soon -- because the results are in and they're indisputable.

The Clintonite economic fantasy of "corporate-friendly Democrats" has failed. From Wall Street deregulation to welfare 'reform,' from Social Security "bargains" to jobs cuts for poor mothers, the record is undeniable: "Bipartisan" Washington's economic agenda doesn't work.

Sorry, corporate Democrats: The dream is over. Wake up and smell the GDP. If you won't do it for yourselves, do it for your mothers.

GOP Gone Wild

It's true that Mitt Romney has said stunningly insensitive things about lower-income mothers. And his "bromance" partner Paul Ryan has cooked up a second round of welfare cuts which would decimate lower-income mothers and their children -- even though we now know the first "reform" was a cruel failure.

But Romney's comments aren't all that different from what Bill Clinton said about welfare cuts back in the nineties. And leading Democrats from the White House on down still seem determined to pursue an austerity deal with Republicans that would take the country down the same road of blood and horror that Europe is walking.

(Maybe they should call it a "Grand Guignol Bargain?)

When will Democrats learn that repeating right-wing talking points only accomplishes three things? It helps turn right-wing ideas into right-wing realities, it legitimizes bad ideas -- and it elects Republicans.

Nostalgia Trip

Right-leaning -- excuse me, centrist Democrats -- love to lecture others about living in the past. They argue that their party's traditional ideals and themes -- fighting poverty, ensuring a secure old age, and providing work at fair wages -- went out with bell bottoms and Nehru jackets.

The group that used to be known as "DLC Democrats" and is now sometimes called the "Third Way" contingent still controls the party, and it quickly secured leadership positions for itself in the Obama Administration after the 2008 election. As soon as the insurgent candidate won office the White House nomination process rang with an unspoken but undeniable theme: Out with the new, in with the old.

But the nation quickly learned, even if they did not, that they were the ones living in the past. From the Presidential Deficit Commission to the Administration's ill-timed embrace of austerity, the centrism that worked so well in the nineties began tanking in the 21st Century. It even allowed Republicans to run to Democrats' left on Social Security in 2010 -- and recapture the House.

Why won't they change? Maybe because it's hard to let go of a beautiful dream.

That Nineties Show

High-profile Dems in the 1990s must have thought that you can have it all: They could bask in the admiration and acclaim enjoyed by their more liberal forebears while enjoying the largesse and security (personal and political) that comes when you win the backing of corporations and very-high-net-worth individuals.

And during the go-go Clinton years it almost seemed as if it worked: The economy was booming as they cut regulations, forced new rules and restrictions onto key antipoverty programs, and very nearly agreed to cut Social Security.

Leading the charge was Bill Clinton himself. He signed the "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act" on August 22, 1996, saying it would "end welfare as we know it and transform our broken welfare system by promoting the fundamental values of work, responsibility, and families."

And when he signed the bill repealing Glass-Steagall, Bill Clinton said that ''This legislation is truly historic" -- a statement that's indisputable in hindsight: It's helped contribute to historic levels of unemployment, lost wealth for the middle class, and ongoing economic insecurity. His next sentence -- ''We have done right by the American people" -- is more dubious.

Clintonian economic centrism was nothing but a fantasy -- a bubble-driven fantasy. The go-no nineties were fueled by an Internet bubble, and than a housing bubble sent the economy into manic overdrive.

Moms and Jobs

That nineties-era deregulation led to the financial crisis of 2008. Much has been made of the fact that unemployment statistics look slightly better for women than for men -- but compared to what? And for which women?

As of March 2012 official unemployment rate for women in the United States was 7.7 percent. In the twenty years before the crisis that figure was only reached for all workers in the final months of the first President Bush's term -- just before he lost his re-election bid over dissatisfaction with the economy.

In other words, it's a very bad number. Remember "It's the economy, stupid?"

Single mothers have been disproportionately hurt by the ongoing American recession. So have minority women, as well as mothers from all backgrounds who must contend with un- or underemployed spouses as well as young-adult children who are still living at home or accepting money from their parents during a period of record joblessness for the young.

And the "golden years" won't provide any comfort, much less gold, for America's mothers. Women over the age of 55 actually face higher unemployment rates than men do.

Poor Moms

We now know that welfare reform everybody was bragging about the nineties -- that decade's "Grand Bargain," its "bipartisan" triumph -- was a failure. It may have slightly helped single mothers find jobs in the 1990s, but nearly ninety percent of the job gains among single mothers during that period were due to other factors.

Even those meager gains were soon wiped out. Deregulation shattered the economy and led to mass unemployment, while conservative state legislators slashed the programs meant to help mothers who need jobs. And then the Federal programs were cut too.

But the cuts for mothers and their children? They didn't go away when the jobs did.

Aid to Families with Dependent Children was ended, and we now know that its successor (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families -- TANF) only helps 27 out of every 100 impoverished families. That's less than half the families that were getting help before all of this bipartisan "reform" kicked in.

The New York Times tells the story of real "welfare reform," describing the "desperate and sometimes illegal ways" mothers without assistance make ends meet: "They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners -- all with children in tow."

Grand-Moms

We now know that Bill Clinton was working on a "grand bargain" with Newt Gingrich to cut Social Security and Medicare when his plans were derailed by scandal. Today his successor insists on putting Social Security and Medicare benefits back "on the table" for a similar deal.

How would that affect the country's mothers and grandmothers? A new Kaiser Family Foundation brief confirms that seniors rely on Social Security for most of their income, that medical costs are a large and already-growing part of their budgets, and that women face much greater financial insecurity than men.

Cuts to Social Security or benefit cuts (as opposed to other cost reduction measures) to Medicare would devastate America's moms and grand-moms.

Choosy Mothers

This election year the choice has never been clearer -- except when it isn't.

It's clear that today's Republicans are certainly extremists, and that they're pushing an anti-woman, anti-family agenda. The GOP's push for anti-union, anti-employee laws -- marketed under the name "Right to Work" -- disproportionately hurts working women as well as minorities.

The phony outrage over Ann Romney hides the fact that Mrs. Romney could make a choice whether to work or stay with her children -- a choice that her supposedly "pro-family" husband wants to deny to less wealthy women: "Even if you have a child two years of age, you need to go to work," Romney said in January. "I want individuals to have the dignity of work."

Elections have been won and lost on such callous statements. But if the Democrats want to win they're going to have to repudiate their own party's similar rhetoric -- rhetoric that candidate Obama embraced in 2008 when he rad an ad called "Dignity" which used many of the same stock phrases. State Senator Barack Obama was much closer to the mark in 1997 when he called the legislation "disturbing" and said, "I probably would not have supported the federal legislation."

Mother Knows Best

The Third Way types can throw around all the massaged, tweaked, and sliced-and-diced polling data they want (Mike Lux has the details), but their agenda doesn't work any better politically than it does economically. The more populist the president's rhetoric becomes, the better he does in the polls.

A wishy-washy pseudo-centrist message will disenchant the Democrats' core voters -- the young, minorities, and yes, women -- just enough to suppress their turnout in November and give the race to the Republicans. So the Democrats have a choice: They can be the party of corporate lobbyists like -- well, like Hillary Rosen -- or they can fight for the country's mothers.

It's all very well and good to repeat Romney's cruel words about poor mothers and their kids, or to mock right-wingers like Gary Bauer for calling that now-discredited welfare reform "one of the great bipartisan triumphs of the last two decades." But if Democrats don't repudiate the reckless errors of conservative pseudo-centrism they'll be throwing away an electoral opportunity -- and they'll be letting down America's moms.

All of them, that is, except the new First Lady of the United States: Ann Romney.

Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future and the host of The Breakdown, broadcast Saturdays nights from 7-9 pm on WeAct Radio, AM 1480 in Washington DC.