Ochenski Tells Democrats It’s Time for Democrats to Start Acting Like Democrats
This past Saturday, The Indy’s award-winning supermontanacolumnist George Ochenski gave the keynote speech at the Flathead Democrat’s Annual Harvest Dinner. Never one to hold back on the truth, the big GO delivered a barn-burner, closing to a standing ovation and inspiring all who attended.
It’s no secret that I absolutely worship George Ochenski. He says he isn’t a political strategist, and he says he isn’t a political leader, but there isn’t a doubt in my mind that the Democrats would be a in a better place – the Montana Democrats would be in a better place – if he were.
Ochenski is an inspiration to me and many others. I say that without a doubt as to the truth of that statement.
I also doubt he’d been able to finish this speech if I were there – I’da been standing on my chair, fist raised, shouting as loud as I could “Hell yeah!” before he’da been half-way through. Jess Grennan knows what I’m talking about.
Want to know what it means to be a Democrat? Wonder, these days, what it should mean? His entire words are a must-read. I’m tempted to print out a few copies and send ’em to Washington. And Helena.
Before I do my Rod Sterling imitation and welcome you to the Twilight Zone that is modern-day politics, I’d like to personally thank those folks who made it possible for me to be here tonight. First and foremost, the Flathead Democratic Women and the Flathead Democratic Party for their kind invitation to speak. I’d also like to thank Margie Gignac for all her work and extend special appreciation to JoLynne and Jerry Yenne for kindly allowing my wife and I to use their great cabin where we enjoyed a very peaceful evening last night.
But the sand is running through the hourglass, so let’s jump right into the Twilight Zone and try to make some sense of the strange and swirling maelstrom into which American politics have descended.
First, I’d like to talk about “Why the Right is Wrong”…the easy part of this speech.
As we all know, having lived through eight nightmare years of the George W. Bush and Dick Cheney cabal, the Republicans have nothing, I repeat, nothing to offer us in the way of a vision for a better future.
You all remember, as do I, the phony campaign promises by Republicans to “restore dignity” to Washington following the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Their first move, aided and abetted by Montana’s own Governor Marc Racicot, was to “restore dignity” by stealing the election through voter intimidation, hanging chads and a conservative Supreme Court that decided it was more important to “move on” than accurately tally the votes of the people. And so we wound up with George Bush in the White House.
Perhaps, were it not for the September 11 attacks, Mr. Bush would have been the incompetent one-term president so many predicted. But that was not to be. Instead, a shocked, paranoid and complicit Congress – both Democrats and Republicans – cranked the wheel hard to the right through a series of events from which we have not recovered to this day – and may never fully recover.
Instead of dignity, we got deception. Instead of transparency, we got obfuscation, secrecy and denial of access to formerly public information. Instead of the Republicans’ much-vaunted “fiscal conservatism,” we tipped off the edge of wildly out-of-control spending, launching two wars and vastly increasing the military and intelligence agency budgets while domestic needs took a back seat and civil liberties, freedom and privacy were sacrificed to the umbrella excuse of “national security.”
In a throwback to the Age of Imperialism, Bush launched two wars, neither of which was justifiable and both of which, sadly, are still ongoing.
The invasion of Afghanistan was cloaked in the “mission” to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. But Afghanistan, with its towering Hindu Kush Mountains, is a wild country that has never been successfully occupied by any foreign force. The bones of the British Empire still molder in the Khyber Pass more than a century after their failed attempts at domination. Likewise, the rusted remains of Soviet tanks and helicopter gunships still litter the countryside decades later, an all-too-grim reminder that modern superpowers have no more chance of success there than the horse-borne armies of the past.
And now, of course, American blood mixes with the dust of centuries on Afghanistan’s forbidding landscapes while Osama bin Laden, wherever he may be, laughs at America’s folly in thinking we, unlike all others, can somehow subdue Afghanistan’s wild tribes. He laughs, too, as our Treasury is sucked dry by the effort, a grim parallel to the fiscal crisis widely blamed for the collapse and subsequent fracturing of the Soviet Union that, in fact, is having the same effect on our nation.
Shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq fell into the Bush-Cheney crosshairs, despite the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with 9-11. What it did and does have to do with is oil. The world of oil is the world of Dick Cheney, and as we heard time and again, “Iraq is floating on a sea of oil.”
So it was that Bush, Cheney and their military-industrial complex advisors and a complicit Congress launched another war at a cost vastly exceeding what it would have taken to simply buy the oil if we wanted it so badly.
But of course that doesn’t take into account the other costs. The dead men and women of our Armed Services, the fractured families, those who returned home broken or beset with the demons of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the uncounted casualties inflicted upon the people of Iraq. We still have 50,000 troops in Iraq today, suffering and dying while the debt burden for future generations continues to rocket skyward as the true price of this calamitous war becomes ever more clear.
Perhaps even worse than these unimaginable military and financial disasters is the policy and social detritus left in the wake of the failed Republicans. Warrantless search and seizure, extraordinary renditions, (more commonly called international kidnapping and torture), and a nation at war with itself.
Long after Bush’s infamous “you’re either with us or against us” rhetoric has faded, the reality of what that did to our country lives on. We are no longer a country united in our goals and holding high the torch of Liberty, but one in which, neighbor turns suspiciously against neighbor, where distortion and outright lies replace truth and open debate, and where our own government spies on us, puts us on “do not fly” lists without our knowledge, and even marks American citizens for assassination without the benefit of a trial or the opportunity to present defense…thus crumbling even the most basic foundation of our judicial system that, as a people, we are all “innocent till proven guilty.”
And this is where the Tea Party comes into the picture.
The very name is derived from the phrase “Taxed Enough Already.” But as Montanans know only too well, the TEA Party agenda has veered wildly from the legitimate questions of taxation levels into far more radicalized arenas.
Could it be anymore plain when Glenn Beck takes the stage in Washington to wrap himself in the flag, like so many scoundrels before him, proclaiming God as the answer to all man’s problems, and to suggest that those who don’t follow his path do not deserve a place in the great experiment that is American politics? Nothing could be more antithetical to the principles upon which this nation was founded than to decry the right of each person to choose what to believe – or what not to believe.
When religion becomes the cornerstone of any political movement, freedom of thought and action are soon headed for extinction.
And how ironic that while American troops are fighting and killing the religion-based Taliban in Afghanistan, our own country is being urged by Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin to emulate the Taliban by persecuting those who do not march in lock-step to their particular drummer.
But in this instance, Montanans do not need to look to national figures to see the ugly inner workings of the Tea Party. Only two weeks ago, Tim Ravndal, the president of the Montana Tea Party Association, revealed the depth of the hatred and bigotry that boils away just beneath the surface of Taxed Enough Already.
What does the murder of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard have to do with taxation? The answer is “exactly nothing.” Shepard was beaten and left to die hanging on a barb wire fence for the great crime of being gay. His sexual preference was his death sentence. And unfortunately, the ugly revelations from Ravndal’s online postings made fun of what was referred to as a manual for “hanging fruits” that would be available in Wyoming.
Ravndal deserved to go, but he is just one member of an organization that many say is actually manipulated from the very top by well-funded right-wingers, intent on remaking America in their image rather than allowing open debate and the long-standing workings of democracy to function.
Again, here in Montana, it is not hard to recall the obvious threat presented by those who “open carry” firearms to political functions. The message couldn’t be much clearer – “We are armed and we are dangerous and we hate President Obama and the Democrats.”
And where does armed intimidation of the populace by select segments lead us? Why, right back to Afghanistan, once again, where you either behave as a certain sector demands or face a bullet.
Dressing in the garments of the Revolutionary War, which was fought to escape oppression, doesn’t change what is now evident – that fear, intimidation and oppression of “the others” is the driving force behind this movement.
And so the case continues to build that the TEA Party is actually misnamed and should be called the POP Party. POP standing for Pissed Off People, a movement that claims no leaders, no central purpose and no particular path except to evince anger and frustration at the current situation and find someone, anyone, on which to vent.
In this respect, we may all have a scintilla of sympathy for these people. Who isn’t frustrated and angry right now about the state of the nation? The tragedy, however, is that the Tea Party is capitalizing on that anger and frustration which both the Republican Party and, sad to say, the Democrats, continue to deny.
And that brings us to the most difficult part of my speech to you tonight – which is the state of the Democratic Party.
When I told people I was coming up here to address the Flathead Democrats, a number of political wags quipped “both of ‘em?”
But when I asked what I should tell you, virtually everyone said the same thing: “Tell them the truth. Tell them it’s time for Democrats to act like Democrats.”
Indeed, an easy thing to say as well as an honorable and high-minded goal.
After all, Democrats have long held the torch of Liberty high.
Democrats have long supported the working people and the middle class.
And Democrats have long fought for equality, justice and tolerance.
These are the core values upon which the Democratic Party was founded and has flourished. These are the values that George Bush and his Republicans left behind and that, only two short years ago, led to the Great Upheaval that threw the Republicans from power and replaced them with the largest Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress in three decades. And put Democrat Barack Obama in the White House as the first black President of the United States.
Democrats came to power on the promise of “Change and Hope” – supported by a tidal wave of enthusiasm, a surge of young people anxious for a better future, and a revitalized constituency ready to move our country away from war and international militarism to more sane, focused and tolerant policies that would implement those core values of liberty, justice and freedom for ALL.
I don’t need to tell you, my friends, that this is an unexpectedly dark time for Democrats…you can read it in the headlines every day.
Yesterday, I awoke to this across the top of my morning paper: “1 in 7 Americans living in poverty.” That America, one of the world’s richest nations in the entire history of mankind should have 1 in 7 of its people impoverished isn’t just bad news, it’s a betrayal of everything this nation stands for.
That would seem to be an incontrovertible assumption, yet in the article following the headline, President Obama is quoted as saying “it could have been worse.”
While it may not make many happy, it’s time to acknowledge that the Democrats will not win and will not retain the political power necessary to bring the desperately needed changes to our nation by running on a platform of “it could have been worse.”
Nor will they win on a platform of blaming George W. Bush who, along with his Congressional majorities, is long gone from mis-steering the Ship of State.
The Democrats are fully in charge now and have been for nearly two full years. And yet they are in deep trouble, often divided, and facing an uncertain future. Of all the hundreds of commentaries, columns and speeches I’ve reviewed in the last months concerning the gloomy outlook for Democrats in the coming elections, the simplest and most direct wisdom I found came in these words from Thomas Geoghegan writing in The Nation:
“Yes, the country is in a foul mood, with 15 million unemployed. The Democrats may get clobbered in 2010. And even if we survive, how do we hang on for the long term? If our great founder, FDR, could come back to us, he might remind us of the three simple rules that once, long ago, Democrats used to follow: 1. Do something for your base, 2. Do something for your base, 3. Do something for your base.”
You, my friends, are the Democrat base.
It is not Wall St. – nor has it ever been.
It is not Corporate America – nor has it ever been.
It is not the military-industrial complex – nor has it ever been.
It is not the top two percent of Americans who enjoy vast riches while the rest of us see our real-world worth, earnings and holdings decline – nor has it ever been.
The examples of how the Democrats have veered from the mission to “do something for their base” are, unfortunately, far too many in the last two years.
The base, those who rallied, called, put up yard signs, organized events like this one — and then turned out at the polls to vote for their Democratic candidates – have not been well-served. Instead, they have watched, sometimes in dismay and horror, as the promised CHANGE was once again derailed by the fearsome array of power and money that surrounds Washington, D.C.
I write an opinion column, and it is my opinion that pounding our chest about the so-called “health care reform” bill is a desperate attempt to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.
It doesn’t take a great memory to recall that, from the beginning, we were told by the Democrats putting the bill together that single-payer, a system used by most of the industrialized nations of the world to provide universal health care for their people, was “off the table.” Why? Because the insurance industry convinced an all-too-willing Montana Senator that any so-called “reform” must leave that industry – and it’s enormous profits — firmly between patients and their doctors. That is NOT serving the base, that is kow-towing to power and trying to convince us otherwise.
Had the Republicans drafted the provision that all Americans would be required to buy health insurance, the Democrats would have ridden them out of town as yet another sign of Draconian Bush policies. But as you all know, that didn’t happen and instead, the mandate has been turned into a rallying point for the Republicans and Tea Party as states across the nation sue the federal government in retaliation.
Had Republicans re-authorized the assassination of American citizens without trial, the Democrats would have cried out for justice, for habeus corpus, for the right to a trial by a jury of their peers. But instead, yet another despicable process begun under Bush is being carried forward by a Democratic administration.
The much-vaunted “financial reform” bill is likewise primarily a continuation of the status quo. If we are to take heart, it is in the formation of a fledgling Consumer Protection Agency, the newly-appointed head of which had to be installed on a temporary basis because confirmation by the broken processes of the U.S. Senate wouldn’t have happened.
And now, faced with what shouldn’t even be a matter of debate for Democrats — whether to continue massive, deficit-building tax breaks for the richest amongst us or limit them to the middle class — Congressional Democrats stand divided, openly challenging the position of their own leader in the White House. Somehow, and this remains a mystery, a Republican minority dictates that the starting point for the discussion is extending the tax breaks for all.
I am not a Demo strategist nor a party leader. I simply write a political opinion column and so it is far beyond my ability to change the party so that it once again “Does Something for the Base.”
But I will offer these suggestions:
First and foremost, hold your elected officials to their campaign promises.
When universal health care is promised, don’t settle for a continued fleecing by the insurance industry while the neediest among us are left to fend for themselves – or simply get sick and die.
When peace is promised, don’t settle for more war.
When transparency is promised, don’t accept a continued policy of shutting the public out of the information upon which we rely to make informed judgments regarding public policy, expenditures of taxpayer money or America’s war-making abroad. We deserve to know who we’re killing with Predator drone strikes in Pakistan, we deserve to know how much we’re spending on “black ops” and we deserve to know why our own government is invading our personal privacy in our emails, phone calls, and homes.
Don’t settle for “it could have been worse” when what you really expected to hear is “we made it much better.”
If “Change and Hope” is the campaign promise, don’t accept that in a few short months it will morph into “Hope for Change.”
If a governor promises a “New Day in Montana,” don’t accept that Arch Coal gets to dictate the price it will pay for the Otter Creek Coal Tracts to our Land Board – or that the majority of that all-Democrat Board will roll over like dogs to obey and then divert the money they said would go to schools for other purposes.
As the old saying goes, “you dance with the one that brung ya” and YOU are the people that brought elected Democrats to the dance. It is YOU they should be serving, not the powerful elite who milk this country mercilessly and leave our children and their children a hollowed out husk of what could have been.
The core Democratic principles of liberty, freedom, personal privacy, government accountability and tolerance for all had the power to move our people to become a great nation — and they retain that power to this day. Those are the principles that, truly, are the flame on the torch of the Statue of Liberty.
I do not know if there is time, in the waning weeks prior to this election, to rejuvenate the Democrat base. But I can tell you this – if we have any hope whatsoever for the future, it will be Democrats who carry these principles forward, who motivate our young people with a vision of a better world, who comfort our old, tired, and ill.
It will not be the Tea Party and it will certainly not be the Republicans. We have seen them in action and we cannot yet again hand over this state and nation to their dubious policies and principles.
You, far more than I, know what to do on the local level and how to do it.
In that regard, I would bring to mind the dramatic battle of Flathead Democrat Ben Cohen nearly 25 years ago.
It was Ben — whose wife and son are in the audience tonight by the way — in his role as a member of the Montana House of Representatives, who had the courage to stand against the might of Proctor and Gamble to achieve a noble goal – keeping the incredible purity of Flathead Lake intact for future generations by eliminating phosphate-containing detergents from the watershed.
I was there as a young lobbyist, in the trenches with Ben when the Big Guns of Corporate America were rolled out against the truly minimal resources he and a handful of environmental activists could muster.
They had legions of lawyers and lobbyists and virtually endless money to spend. But we had what Proctor and Gamble did not. We had the truth — and we had the support of the local people who wanted their children and their children’s children to be able to enjoy what we have enjoyed.
We fought hard in the Legislature and, against all odds, we won. And then we had to fight again here in the Flathead Valley to finally achieve the goal –which as recent studies from Yellow Bay confirm, continues to bear fruit a quarter of a century later.
Ben, as many of you know, passed on some years back…and we miss him greatly. But his legacy lives on.
So, too, with the Democrats. You may not win all the battles, but if you don’t stand strong on your core principles, you will win none of them.
And so I urge you tonight – go do what you’re good at. Talk to your neighbors, get them to the polls, write those letters to the editor and demand – yes, I said DEMAND – that your Democratic candidates keep their campaign promises at every level.
The old saying in political circles is that those people who are inclined to vote for Republicans will vote for a real Republican over a Democrat trying to sound like a Republican every time. Heed that advice.
You are Democrats. You have a long and proud tradition of standing up for what is best about America. Stay strong to that tradition and you will prevail because YOU ARE THE BASE…YOU ARE THE PEOPLE.
And in the future, as with the legacy of Ben Cohen, many will look back in sincere gratitude for your efforts and generations yet to come will thank you, over and over, for your commitment, courage and strength in the face of the adversity and animosity you face today.
I thank you all for your kindness this evening, but most of all for what you do to make our state and nation better than it is and as great as it may be.
Keep it up, there’s a tough fight ahead. And as Princess Leia said to Obi Wan Kenobe in the old Star Wars movie –“you’re our only hope.”