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Issue 34, January 1999

The meaning of the mid-term elections

    Government investments
    Religious right rebuffed
    When the downturn bites...

The tactics adopted by the Republicans in the US mid-term elections rebounded on them. Their campaign to turn the elections into a plebiscite on the impeachment of the president was decisively rejected by voters. This has not only strengthened Clinton's position, but seriously damaged the Republicans. Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the House and Clinton's arch opponent, was immediately forced to resign. LYNN WALSH writes.

ALTHOUGH RELATIVELY FEW seats changed parties, the results were a serious set-back for the Republicans, the more right-wing of the two big-business parties. Normally, the party which holds the presidency loses seats in mid-term elections, especially in a president's second term of office. Gingrich had boasted that the Republicans would substantially increase their Congressional majority. But in the House of Representatives, 16 seats changed hands and the Republicans suffered a net loss of five seats. In the Senate, five seats changed hands but the balance remained the same, 55 Republicans to 45 Democrats.

Thirty-six state governorships were contested, with seven changing hands. The Democrats now hold 17, as previously, while the Republicans dropped from 32 to 31. The Republicans unexpectedly lost the governorship of Minnesota to the former professional wrestler, Jesse Ventura, fighting under the banner of Ross Perot's Reform Party - a result which reflects grassroots cynicism about the electoral process.

The turnout was, as usual, low - variously reported at between 36% and 38% of the eligible voters, compared to 39% in 1994. Nevertheless, one clear trend emerged from the complicated mass of election results. There was in a number of regions a sharp rejection by minorities, labor union members, and a section of the middle class, of the Christian right and the Contract-with-America reactionaries. So confident before the elections, the Republican right are now desperately trying to reposition themselves for the turbulent period ahead.

  top     Government investments

SIX OUT OF ten eligible voters feel totally disenfranchised by a political system dominated by two big-business parties.
"Bored, dispirited and disgusted, most Americans will not vote", reported the New York Times. Their pre-ballot poll showed that "compared to voters, non-voters are younger, less educated, have lower incomes and tend to support Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives" (New York Times, 3 November). While likely voters appeared to be evenly split between the two parties, 49% of non-voters favoured Democrats and 27% favoured Republicans - showing that the turnout of potential Democratic voters is crucial to the outcome of elections. But most voters, as one New York teacher commented, skipped the voting booth because politicians skip the issues most relevant to people.

Truly competitive races for the House are rare - about 98% of sitting Representatives are re-elected. The Federal Election Commission reports that in about 60% of House races one candidate, almost always the incumbent, outspends the other by ten to one or more. Over the last year, House incumbents have raised an average of $625,000, more than four times the amount collected by the average challenger (International Herald Tribune, 4 November). Clearly, political donations (which come overwhelmingly from big-business interests) are not aimed at influencing election results, but are intended to buy influence with sitting politicians.

A few days before the election the New York Times reported on the campaign finances of the New York State governor, George Pataki, who spent $20m on this campaign. "Many contributors to Pataki", ran their headline, "are companies that do business with state government" (27 October). Just one of the examples they gave was donations totalling more than $400,000 from five property companies bidding to develop the prestigious Colosseum site in Manhattan. The successful bidder, Related Companies and Time Warner, donated $60,000 to Pataki's campaign. A Time Warner spokesman said: "The notion that we gave the money in exchange for anything to do with the Colosseum project is ridiculous". An executive from one of the unsuccessful bidders said: "The unsaid dictum was that if you do business with the government, you had better support your government".

Election campaigns are fought on the basis of enormously expensive TV ads based on sound bites, backed up by polls, direct mail shots and telephone solicitation. "The modern campaign", commented the Washington Post, "is a candidate who takes a break from fund-raising calls to talk to a media consultant who has just talked to a pollster who has just talked to a focus group" (International Herald Tribune, 4 November).

The legal limits on campaign spending (introduced after the Watergate scandal) are systematically evaded. At the same time, the parties are able to raise 'soft money' so long as it is not used to directly promote candidates. This time, the two parties raised $162m between them, spending it on negative campaigning against their rivals. In the last week of the election campaign the Republicans spent at least $10m in attacking Clinton over the Lewinsky affair.

  top     Religious right rebuffed

THE DEEPER WAR chest of the Republicans, however, did not save them from a number of significant defeats. In the relatively few Senate, House and gubernatorial races where there was a real contest (where Republican incumbents were retiring or under threat) there was a higher than usual turnout, especially amongst Afro-Americans, Latinos, union members and environmentalists.

In New York state this trend resulted in a Senate defeat for D'Amato, the notoriously right-wing and corrupt boss of the Republican state party machine. This was despite the fact D'Amato spent $20m on his campaign, compared to his opponent's $13m. The swing reflected not so much support for the successful Democrat, Schumer, as opposition to the Republican's big-business policies - even bigger tax breaks for the wealthy, continued assault on social programmes, even harsher law-and-order policies, and a threat to choice on abortion.

In California, the Democratic candidate, Gray Davis, took the governorship for the Democrats for the first time in 16 years. Even in the deep south, the Democrats won the governorships in South Carolina and Alabama, and held the governorship of Georgia (though they were also helped by the big gambling companies' opposition to the religious right's opposition to state lotteries and other forms of gambling). In North Carolina, the Democrats took a Senate seat from the Republicans.

According to exit polls, the proportion of black voters stayed roughly the same - about 10% of those who voted - as the last mid-term elections in 1994. But the percentage of blacks who voted for Democrats jumped to 88% in this election from 81% in 1996. In some states, however, the black turnout rose markedly - in Maryland 21% of total turnout compared with 12% in 1994; in Georgia, 29% compared with 16% in 1994 (International Herald Tribune, 6 November).

The Latino vote also made a critical difference in some states. In California, Latinos accounted for 14% of the total vote this year compared with 9% in 1994 - and about seven out of ten Latino voters voted Democrat, mostly in opposition to the Republicans' anti-immigrant policies.

  Alongside the increased opposition of minorities and union members to the Republican right, these mid-term elections revealed another trend which has begun to undermine the Republicans. A section of the so-called suburban middle class, which includes a big layer of blue-collar and white-collar workers, are reacting against the policies of the religious right and turning back towards the Democrats. They are disillusioned with the 'revolution' supposedly launched when the Republicans, led by Gingrich, won a decisive Congressional majority in 1994.

Gingrich's 'Contract with America' has delivered little or nothing for them, and they are tiring of the ranting of the religious right. They are more concerned about education, social security (pensions in the US), healthcare (the rationing of treatment by the Health Maintenance Organisations on behalf of the insurance companies) and other bread-and-butter issues than about school prayers or the threat to 'family values' allegedly posed by homosexuals.

The Christian conservative leaders poured millions of dollars into key races, bombarded church-goers with voter guides, and pushed Republican leaders to turn the election into a national plebiscite on Clinton's moral fitness for office. Yet the results showed an undermining of the political influence of the Christian right. Exit polls showed that some religious conservative voters, who usually vote Republican, switched to Democratic candidates. "In 1994, about two-thirds of religious conservatives voted Republican and about one-fourth voted Democratic, according to a poll commissioned by the Christian Coalition. This year, only 54% of religious conservatives voted Republican, while 31% voted Democratic" (International Herald Tribune, 6 November).

This trend away from the Bible-thumping, rip-saw reactionaries undoubtedly reflects increased economic pressures (more spouses working, longer working hours, the insecurity of flexible contracts, etc) even during the 1996-97 boom.

"Another problem for the Republicans", reported the Washington Post, "was that the proportion of voters who described themselves as moderates increased from 45% in 1994 to 50% this year. At the same time, the number who label themselves conservative dropped from 37% in 1994 to 31% this year. About 54% of moderates voted for Democrats this year, compared with 43% for Republicans" (International Herald Tribune, 6 November).

  top     When the downturn bites...

THIS PARTIAL MELTING of the religious right's electoral base will intensify the divisions which have opened up within the Republican party. On the morning after the elections, the religious right angrily blamed Gingrich for neglecting their 'social agenda' (of moral-religious issues) and concentrating on an impeachment campaign. Before, they devoutly believed the electorate would embrace their crusade against Clinton. Faced with a mutiny, Gingrich quickly resigned as Speaker and announced that he will be retiring from Congress. The Contract-with-America warriors are disbanding.

Most likely, the next Speaker of the House will be Bob Livingstone of Louisiana, who is presenting himself as a 'pragmatic conservative' who will attempt to work with the presidency. The House majority leader, Dick Armey of Texas, is also likely to be replaced by a less confrontational leader. Their first task will be to manoeuvre their way out of the barbed wire entanglement of the impeachment process.

Impressed by the decisive re-election of George Bush (son of the former president) as Governor of Texas and the capture of the Florida governorship by his brother, Jeb Bush, some Republican leaders are now looking towards the liberal-conservative wing of the party. Distancing themselves from the religious right, the Bush dynasty preach the need for 'compassion', expressing concern about education, pensions, and the plight of the inner-city poor. This is an attempt to mask big-business politics with a smiling face. The tactical turn reflects a recognition by Republican leaders that, at a time of impending economic and social crisis, they cannot succeed on the basis of open ultra-right policies.

Clinton's New Democrats, for their part, represent conservative-liberalism. While their victories depended on the increased turnout of minorities and union members, successful Democrats like Schumer in New York and Gray Davis in California have pitched their political appeal at the swing (floating) suburban middle-class voters. They promise to defend state pensions, improve education, and perhaps raise the minimum wage. But Clinton's record so far shows they will deliver little or nothing as the economy plunges into recession.

  The successful Democratic mid-term defence - which translates into a Republican defeat - relied heavily on the economic 'feelgood' factor. Exit polls show that most voters feel the economy is strong and will remain strong. Unemployment is low and wage levels are up, reflecting last year's business-cycle peak. In reality, the US recession has already begun, but it has yet to hit most people's living standards. Perceptions are lagging way behind reality. The majority of working people and a large section of the middle class will receive a rude shock when the downturn bites in the coming months.

In good times or bad, neither Democrats or Republicans have anything to offer working people. Instinctively, two-thirds of the voting-age population know they are effectively disenfranchised by the big-business political system. Most African-Americans, Latinos and union members vote Democrat because they fear the Republicans are far worse. Some still have illusions that the Democrats may yet deliver some progress. But it is a profound mistake for union leaders and others on the left to believe that they can push the Democratic Party to the left.

Although the Comeback Kid has survived again, the continued Republican majority in Congress will mean political paralysis for the last two years of Clinton's presidency. There will be ruthless trench warfare between Democrats and Republicans as they position themselves for the presidential election in 2000. As big business is hit by the downswing, however, they will conspire together to pass the tab to the working class.

The US workers desperately need their own party, completely separate from the Democrats and free from big-business interests. In this respect, the second Convention of the Labor Party in Pittsburgh on 13-15 November marks an important step forward. At the same time, on the West Coast the outstanding campaign of the Progressive Left Slate in San Francisco is pioneering an important new socialist trail.

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