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Socialism Today 88 - December-January 2004/05

How could Bush have won?

The election of George W Bush to a second term as US president has shocked the world. Its effect in the US has been no less devastating. In the first of two articles from members of Socialist Alternative (CWI, US) PHILIP LOCKER explains Bush’s victory, while TY MOORE reports on the independent campaign of Nader and Camejo.

TENS OF MILLIONS, deeply dismayed at the victory of George W Bush and the Republicans, are asking, ‘How could Bush have won?’ After all, Bush blatantly lied about dragging us into the catastrophe in Iraq, he is the only president since Herbert Hoover in the 1930s to preside over a net loss in jobs, and his first term was plagued by falling living standards and corporate scandals. Polls show the majority of people think the country is heading in the wrong direction and that the Iraq war wasn’t worth fighting. They also disapprove of the job Bush is doing and oppose his tax cuts for the rich. It seems as if John Kerry snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

The election was a shattering defeat for the Democratic Party. Not only did the Democrats lose the popular vote to Bush by 3%, but they also lost seats in the Senate and House. Kerry’s appeal was so weak, the Democrats lost ground among their core constituencies. Only 53% of Latinos voted for Kerry, down from Gore’s 62% in 2000 and Clinton’s 72% in 1996. Kerry’s share of the female vote was 51%, down from Gore’s 54%. The Democrats even managed to lose their share of African-American and union members’ votes, both by 3%.

While voters were unhappy with Bush, Kerry’s Bush-lite, pro-war, corporate strategy failed to give voters any real reason to vote for him. For example, in Ohio, 62% of voters said the economy was ‘not good’, but when asked who they would trust with the economy, they split evenly between Bush and Kerry; nationally, Bush was even favoured by 2%.

On Iraq, left-wing columnist Doug Ireland pointed out that "history will record that John Kerry lost the election on the day he voted [for] Bush’s war on Iraq. He was hobbled throughout the campaign by this vote, which shackled him to a me-too posture that included endlessly repeated pledges to ‘stay the course’ in Iraq and ‘win’ the occupation. Kerry could not, therefore, develop and present a full-blown critique of Bush on Iraq, nor offer a genuine alternative to him on it. The non-existent Kerry ‘plan’ (based on the hubris [arrogance] that he could con foreign allies into sending their troops to bleed and die for the US crimes at Abu Ghraib) wasn’t bought by the voters".

Ireland continues: "Bush won by making the link between Iraq and the war on terrorism – the Big Lie which Kerry could not effectively counter, because he’d bought into it at the beginning. And it was on that endlessly hammered lie that Bush won the country on the Iraq issue – the exit polls Tuesday night showed that voters thought the Iraq war was part of the war on terror by 52-44%". (, 3 November)

While the race was extremely intense, it was still fundamentally a battle between two corporate-controlled parties. The interests of workers and ordinary people were once again shut out, as the leaders of labour, women’s, civil rights, and anti-war groups continued their failed policy of supporting the Democratic Party, this year under the guise of ‘Anybody but Bush’. Only Ralph Nader’s anti-war, pro-worker campaign, which was only able to reach a minority, gave voice to the needs of ordinary people and pointed to the need for a left-wing political alternative to break Corporate America’s straitjacket on US political life.

Kerry, while touching on some crucial social issues, tried to compete with Bush in defending conservative, ‘traditional’ values. If Kerry had been elected, he would have carried out a capitalist programme similar to Bush’s, continuing the US occupation of Iraq and attacks on the working class on behalf of his corporate masters. On the basis of this status quo, a decisive majority of the better-paid and middle-income strata of white male workers in suburban and rural communities found Bush a more reassuring candidate.

Bush’s strategy

HOWEVER, BUSH WAS only able to eek out a 51% victory by mobilising millions of new evangelical Christian voters. On the basis of overtly religious appeals, Bush posed as the upholder of the ‘traditional American way of life’ by opposing same-sex marriage and abortion rights and employing coded racism and sexism. In this regard, the Republicans’ eleven state ballot initiatives to ban same-sex marriage, which passed by overwhelming margins, were key in energising the Christian right.

Many of these voters were working class, even poor, hit by the economic downturn under Bush. But lacking any mass left-wing or working-class alternative to channel their anger against big business, the right wing of the Republican Party was able to divert their anger by blaming society’s problems on a breakdown of ‘traditional values’ and the family caused by gay marriage and abortion. This appeal to ‘religious values’ and nationalism resonated with a layer of people who are desperate for stability, order, and security in a rapidly changing, uncertain world. Religion can act as salve to the wounds inflected by a harsh, brutal society – a ‘soul in a soulless world’.

Bush also based his deeply reactionary strategy on wrapping himself in the flag and playing on the fears, insecurities, and confusion of key sections of the electorate through lies and ruthless exploitation of 9/11. This support, however, is based on very unstable foundations and will be shaken by major events in the next period, particularly a new economic recession and a deepening of the crisis in Iraq.

Bush’s strategy succeeded in energising his right-wing religious base to turn out to vote on a larger scale than in 2000. While there was also a growth in new Democratic voters, the Republican get-out-the-vote effort was more successful.

This completely disproves the ‘theory’ of media pundits and over-paid campaign consultants that, in order to win elections, candidates need to cater to conservative swing voters by running a moderate, centrist campaign. Bush was able to win by running a right-wing campaign, whereas Kerry’s ‘me-too’ strategy of shunning his ‘base’ and reaching out to the right was incapable of sufficiently arousing enough workers and oppressed people to vote for him.

While voter turnout was up (57% from 54%), 43% of eligible voters still did not vote. This 43% is disproportionately poor people, people of colour, and young people – groups that largely vote for Democrats. Nader noted: "The re-election of George Bush would not have occurred had the Democrats stood up for the needs of the American people. Tens of millions of Americans have been left out of the political process because their needs are being ignored".

One commentator put it: "If Kerry wants black people to wait in line for four hours to vote for him, he needs to promise them more than additional cops to harass their neighborhoods". (, 5 November)

To defeat Bush, which was entirely possible, it would have been necessary to advance a bold working-class alternative rather than pander to Bush’s right-wing agenda. An example of the possibility of winning support by appealing to workers’ interests, even in Republican ‘red states’, was the ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage in Florida and Nevada which passed overwhelmingly (with 72% of the vote in Florida), even though both Florida and Nevada went to Bush, and the Republican Party strongly opposed the initiatives.

The Democrats’ failure to advance a clear alternative to Bush, however, was not an accidental mistake or simply a personal weakness of Kerry. It stems directly from the political character of the Democratic Party itself – a party bought and owned by Corporate America and committed to defending its profit system at home and abroad.

While Kerry did at times sharply attack Bush and raise some populist themes, it was limited to the sphere of rhetoric and lacked credibility, particularly given the Democratic Party’s long history of broken promises. When Kerry attempted to attack Bush on Iraq, he was never able to effectively answer Bush’s simple reply that Kerry had voted for the war and kept changing his position on it. It was just as hard to take seriously Kerry’s attempts to appeal to workers’ economic interests when it was coming from an out-of-touch billionaire who was calling for tax cuts for corporations and had voted for Nafta, the WTO, and Clinton’s dismantling of Welfare.

This allowed Bush to relentlessly attack Kerry as an unprincipled flip-flopper who is willing to say anything to get elected, effectively exploiting the two-faced, cowardly nature of the Democratic Party. The flip-flopping, half-heartedness and incoherence is the inevitable by-product of the contradictions of a party which claims to speak for working people while, in reality, serving the interests of the brutal, exploitative ruling class.

This election showed yet again how futile it is to rely on the Democrats as a political vehicle for fighting the right wing. The key to resisting Bush is to mobilise the power of the working class, women, people of colour, and the anti-war movement, which the Democrats are utterly opposed to. It is long overdue that the anti-war movement and working people break from this capitalist party and begin to build our own political party.

Has the country swung to the right?

MANY OF THE Anybody But Bush left-wing supporters of Kerry have argued that the Republicans’ election victory is evidence, not of Kerry’s failed strategy, but of the right-wing, conservative outlook of the majority of the country.

For example, Katha Pollitt’s article, Mourn, in The Nation, reasons: "Maybe this time the voters chose what they actually want: Nationalism, pre-emptive war, order not justice, ‘safety’ through torture, backlash against women and gays, a gulf between haves and have-nots, government largesse for their churches, and a my-way-or-the-highway president".

However, this argument gives a highly distorted, over-simplified picture of what happened on 2 November. Only 29% of the eligible electorate voted for Bush (51% of the 57% who voted). This is hardly a public mandate for Bush’s agenda. This does not take into account the millions of Kerry votes that were possibly lost due to poor machinery (overwhelmingly in poor communities of colour) and Republican voter suppression efforts, as investigative journalist Greg Palast has reported (, 4 November). On top of this, there is the legal exclusion of ex-felons and immigrants without citizenship, even though they work and pay taxes.

In reality, the country is more polarised than at any time in 30 years, with almost half the electorate fiercely opposed to a wartime president. With only another 1.5% of the vote, Kerry would have won the election – and the left would not be agonising about the pro-Bush electorate.

In 1972, when right-wing Republican, Richard Nixon, was re-elected to a second term with a crushing 61% of the vote, many on the left were similarly devastated and falsely concluded that it demonstrated a right-wing shift in consciousness. Shortly thereafter, the US was forced out of Vietnam, and Nixon was driven out of office by the Watergate scandal and a growing popular revolt.

This example illustrates the basic Marxist view that elections are only a distorted snapshot of the public mood at any one time. This mood is not set in stone and can change rapidly under the impact of major events.

This is not to deny that Bush’s tactics succeeded in mobilising reactionary, right-wing sentiments through employing lies and appealing to the political disorientation, religious prejudice, racism, and sexism of a minority of voters (though well-organised and influential) in more rural, conservative areas. A key factor present in this equation was the effects of 9/11. While the nationalistic, pro-war sentiments Bush whipped up after 9/11 have been steadily falling the past three years, they are still present in the consciousness of large sections of the country. Added to this mix is the potency of appeals for national unity behind a firm leader in the midst of a war. On the other hand, consciousness is always mixed with various contradictory ideas present in people’s minds at the same time. In this election, under the impact of the shock of 9/11, Bush was able to exploit people’s fears about security and terrorism to override the concerns and anger of a decisive section of the population about key social issues (such as jobs, healthcare, and education) on which clear majorities oppose him.

But it was the weakness of Kerry’s right-wing, pro-war strategy that allowed Bush’s tactics to succeed to the extent that they did. Kerry consistently legitimized Bush’s agenda by supporting many of his key policies, such as ‘No Child Left Behind’, corporate tax cuts, and the Patriot Act. The race was on Bush’s right-wing terms, and Bush’s agenda faced no serious opposition. Just the opposite. Kerry continually echoed him, and attempted to out-Bush Bush, which de-energised Kerry’s base and played into Bush’s hands.

Kerry supported the Iraq war, claiming he would wage it more effectively, tried to out-hawk Bush on Iran, promised to "hunt down and kill the terrorists", and employed racist rhetoric such as when he complained that "we now have people from the Middle East... coming across the border". This gave little reason to wavering voters to break with Bush, and instead fed into the logic: ‘Why change horses in mid-stream? We might as well stick with a strong, determined leader at a time of war, rather than an inconsistent flip-flopper’.

When Bush attacked gay marriage, voters did not hear any real opposition from Kerry and the Democrats, who instead tried to prove they too believed marriage should only be between a man and a woman. However, this rotten, unprincipled tactic did not end up helping the Democrats. Conservative voters who turned out to ban gay marriage in state ballot initiatives voted for Bush, the candidate they saw as the ‘real deal’.

Even worse, by tying itself to Kerry, the Anybody But Bush left failed to build any serious movement to answer the bigoted anti-gay marriage amendments because that would have meant criticising Kerry and diverting resources away from Kerry’s campaign. But how else will lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights be won, if not by a determined mass struggle? Only a bold movement for LGBT rights, that seeks to link up with all workers and oppressed people, can answer the homophobic poison spewed by the religious right, and strengthen support for gay marriage. Even if we do not win right away, at least we can begin to build our forces and establish a tradition of fighting for equal rights.

The civil rights movement started out as a minority, but by organising mass protests, it was able to change public opinion and the balance of forces in society. The same was true in the fight for women’s abortion rights in the 1960s and early 1970s. Should the pioneers of these movements not have taken a stand by beginning to build a movement against racism and sexism even when they held minority viewpoints? The 2004 election should leave no doubt that the Democratic Party is hopelessly unwilling to take such a stand and fight as a minority, just as they went along with Bush after 9/11 in stampeding the country into a ‘war on terrorism’.

Bush will face massive opposition

BUSH CLEARLY SEES his re-election as a mandate, a green light, to implement even more brutal right-wing policies. Bush officials are planning a massive assault on the working class, such as a partially privatising Social Security, tax ‘reform’ (ie making the tax system radically more regressive through a flat tax or replacing income tax with a national sales tax), limiting medical liability, nominating right-wing Supreme Court justices who could possibly overturn Roe v Wade (a landmark ruling on abortion), pushing a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, further attacking civil liberties, and renewing efforts to open oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. However, the idea that the political conditions are ripe for Bush to easily carry out such extreme policies is as far-fetched as were the fantasies about the invasion of Iraq being a ‘cakewalk’.

In reality, Bush faces an utter disaster in Iraq, and he has no viable strategy to deal with this growing crisis. US casualties will continue to mount along with the Iraqi resistance, which will detonate a gigantic anti-war movement in the US, shaking the country to its foundations, possibly on the scale of the Vietnam anti-war movement.

The US economy is also in crisis, mired by an unsustainable current account deficit, an inflated stock market, a housing bubble, a falling dollar, huge debt and massive overcapacity. The full effects of this crisis have been temporarily postponed, but a new downturn is likely in the next few years. A new recession will cause serious economic suffering for millions of workers and middle class people, dramatically undercutting Bush’s public support.

As Bush plunges ahead with attacks on workers and democratic rights, he will overreach, provoking massive opposition. Bush’s first term triggered huge protests, radicalisation, and a polarisation of society. Bush’s second term is likely to be even more tumultuous. Temporarily, there will be an ebb in struggle due to the widespread demoralisation and despondency among activists at Bush’s re-election, who mistakenly pinned their hopes on Kerry. But on the basis of events, new, larger struggles will develop.

The extremely polarised presidential election exposed the mounting tensions building up in US society, but it did not in any way resolve these deep contradictions. Bush’s re-election adds a new, destabilising factor to this already explosive mix. The underlying social and class issues, which were overridden by security concerns and ‘moral values’ in the 2004 election, will erupt as the economy heads into a downturn, the Iraqi quagmire intensifies, and Bush aggressively moves to carry out brutal attacks on the working class.


Nader’s campaign

EVEN BEFORE 2 November, media pundits and apologists for Kerry, pointing to Ralph Nader’s low poll numbers, were writing sneering obituaries for Nader and the movement to break the corporate duopoly. Now, after Kerry’s devastating defeat and Nader’s low vote, Nader supporters can expect to be handed plenty more death certificates, composed by bitter Democratic Party hacks looking for someone else to blame for their failed strategy.

It is true that Nader and Peter Camejo (vice presidential candidate) received only 400,000 votes, less than half of one percent. On the face of it, this compares very poorly to the 2.7 million votes Nader received in the 2000 elections, and appears to give credence to the argument that the potential for building a left political alternative in the US has been eclipsed.

But the final vote for Nader and Camejo was never going to be the key measure of the campaign’s success or its historic significance. Socialist Alternative and others explained from the outset that, in the context of the overwhelming Anybody But Bush mood and a close election between Bush and Kerry, Nader’s vote would be tightly squeezed.

Despite his small vote, the stand taken by Nader and the small layer of active supporters behind him inspired a ferocious debate on the left, affecting the political outlook of tens of millions of people. Building on the success of his 2000 run, Nader’s 2004 candidacy forced a widespread discussion on the corporate character of the Democratic Party and the need to build a political alternative standing up for the millions against the millionaires, planting seeds for future developments.

The most striking confirmation of Nader’s broad appeal was given by the Democratic Party itself and its allied organisations. Tens of millions of dollars were diverted from the fight to unseat Bush toward an all-out war on the Nader campaign, illustrating that the Kerry campaign fully appreciated the potential mass appeal of Nader’s anti-war, anti-corporate message had it been allowed to penetrate into the mainstream political dialogue.

Thousands of TV, radio and print advertisements were purchased to slander Nader and his supporters. Anti-Nader websites sprang up and mass spamming of potential Nader supporters was organised. An atmosphere of intimidation was consciously created. Ridiculously, Nader was widely accused of receiving most of his money and support from pro-Bush forces! Predictably, when the corporate media even mentioned the Nader campaign, they merely repeated the anti-Nader mantras developed in Kerry campaign focus groups.

Most scandalous of all, the Kerry campaign hired thousands of lawyers to keep Nader off the ballot, mounting dozens of frivolous legal challenges explicitly designed as a war of attrition to sap Nader’s limited resources. This effort to disenfranchise Nader voters, alongside the pre-existing anti-democratic hurdles to ballot access, meant Nader was only on the ballot in 34 states and Washington DC. Being kept off the ballot in 16 states, including California and Massachusetts, was a major factor depressing Nader’s vote.

Historic significance

THE DEMOCRATS’ UNPRECEDENTED assault on the Nader campaign is itself an invaluable experience which will be studied by future movements for independent working-class politics as they develop in the coming period and soberly face up to the challenges they confront.

Beyond that, however, the small vote for Nader does not mitigate the important impact the campaign had on the general electoral debate and on the left. Millions of Kerry supporters considered voting for Nader, and wrestled with the questions his campaign brought up. Discussions over the corporate character of the Democratic Party, the undemocratic electoral system, and the need for political representation for ordinary people, among other issues, would have barely registered in the popular consciousness had Nader not run.

Regardless of what the small activist base built around Nader does in the next period, the ideas popularised and the example set by the campaign will undoubtedly contribute to future attempts to build a left-wing, working-class party in the future. The development of a self-conscious and organised left-wing within the Green Party, based around the idea of clear independence from the Democrats, would not have crystallised had Nader not stood. How and if this new formation (Greens for Democracy and Independence) develops in the coming period remains to be seen.

Major social upheavals and movements are inevitable in the years ahead. The occupation of Iraq, the deepening economic crisis, and the ferocious attacks of the far-right will force workers, oppressed communities, and young people to organise a fight-back. On this basis, the question of forming an anti-corporate, anti-war, working-class political challenge to the two parties of big business will arise again and again. Viewed historically, Nader’s campaign has played a pioneering role.

Debate on the left

IN THE 2000 elections, Nader’s campaign rose on the high tide of the anti-globalisation movement, and a host of progressive celebrities jumped onto the bandwagon. In contrast, Nader’s 2004 run was built on the ebb of the anti-war movement, and with most middle class progressives feeling scared and demoralised after four years of Bush’s assaults, they were successfully bullied into the comforts of ‘unity’ behind Kerry.

But it is periods like this one, when radicalism is not so fashionable, that every political tendency shows its true colours. Nader’s campaign functioned as a sort of litmus test for the left, sharply distinguishing between those willing to bend under the popular pressures of the moment and those with sufficient clarity and perspective to maintain a principled position, keeping their eyes on the prize.

With almost no exceptions, the ‘official’ representatives of the US left fell into line behind Kerry, using their political influence to attack Nader. Michael Moore, among Nader’s most prominent supporters in 2000, toured the country in September and October, holding mass rallies to bolster Kerry’s tepid support among young people and progressives. Everywhere he went, however, he was compelled to answer the criticisms of Kerry forwarded by the Nader campaign, often in the form of shouting matches with Nader supporters in the crowd!

Absurdly, Moore argued that Nader had succeeded in moving the Democrats to the left and should now retire. Falling into the classic trap of lesser-evilism, Moore attempted to justify his support for Kerry by telling fairy tales about Kerry’s progressive credentials and continually implying he would bring the troops home from Iraq.

Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, after being crushed by the Democratic Party leadership in the primaries, were compelled to expend their political capital attacking Nader. Sections of their supporters, outraged that the pro-war, corporate sponsored Kerry had won the nomination, argued that Dean and Kucinich supporters should back Nader. Faced with these defections, Dean was pushed into a nationally broadcast debate with Nader. At the Democratic National Convention, Kucinich showed the way forward to his anti-war supporters by bowing his head, praising Kerry, and avoiding criticism of the occupation of Iraq.

The Green Party also came under massive pressure to deny Nader their ballot lines. In what many considered a rigged convention in June, the Greens capitulated and endorsed David Cobb, who ran a purely symbolic ‘safe states’ campaign that posed no threat to Kerry. However, the party is split down the middle on the issue, with half mobilised around Camejo’s Greens for Nader grouping. This election provoked the inevitable split in the Greens between those who see the party mainly as a pressure group on the Democrats, and those fighting for complete independence from both corporate parties.

The central justification for the Nader campaign was that it gave voice, within the white heat of the electoral battle, to the demands of working people and their social movements. It provided a lever to help pry the social movement organisations away from their allegiance with the Democrats, which only serves to limit their demands, their tactics, and their expectations, to the electoral needs of a corporate sponsored party.

Nader’s campaign showed the need to build an anti-war, working-class political alternative. The lack of such a party meant that Nader’s campaign on the ground, his ability to mobilise an activist base, was extremely limited. The capitulation of the Greens made this problem even worse.

Unfortunately, Nader has done little to translate the energy behind his campaigns, this year or in 2000, into an ongoing, organised movement for independent working-class politics. After his 2000 campaign, and again this year, Socialist Alternative called on Nader to convene and energetically build for a conference to discuss and lay plans toward forming a broad-based, anti-war, pro-worker political party. Such a conference could bring together Greens, Nader’s supporters in the labor movement, anti-war activists, socialists, students, and even many forces who supported Kerry but agree on the need for an alternative. (See: What Next for Nader After November, Justice #40 –

Nader’s failure flows from his lack of a class approach and his acceptance of capitalism. His main slogan on this question was ‘more choices and more voices’. Despite the generally left-wing character of his campaign, Nader’s agenda is to force open the political arena for ‘third parties’ in general, and to push the Democrats to the left.

This mistaken approach was revealed most clearly in his acceptance of the Reform Party ballot lines and his coalition with the Independence Party in New York. Neither of these formations offers anything to the struggles of working people. The Reform Party, initiated by Ross Perot in the 1990s, hijacked by Pat Buchanan in 2000, is today a dying party embracing a confused right-populist programme.

The Independence Party is a bizarre formation, based around a psycho-therapy cult led by Laura Fulani and Fred Newman, which has opportunistically endorsed candidates as divergent as Republican New York mayor, Michael Blumberg, and Nader. To his credit, Camejo refused to have his name appear with Nader’s on the Independence Party ballot line.

Nevertheless, despite some political weaknesses and tactical mistakes, Nader courageously stood up to the remorseless Anyone But Bush onslaught. His platform and campaign point towards the way forward: a complete break from the Democrats and a commitment to build an independent mass party of the left that will defend the interests of working class people.


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