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Bush whacked in US elections

"It was a thumping. I thought we were going to do fine yesterday. That shows what I know". (George W Bush, 8 November) LYNN WALSH analyses the US mid-term elections.

THE MID-TERM ELECTIONS were a national referendum on Bush and the Republicans, who controlled both houses of Congress. Local issues were pushed aside. CNN analyst, Bill Schneider, reported: "A lot of voters said, ‘I’m going to vote Democratic’. But they didn’t even know the name of the Democrat, but they said, ‘I’m going to vote Democratic because I don’t like Bush, I don’t like the war, I want to make a statement’." The Democrats had no clear programme, except: "We are not the Republicans". Clearly, the disastrous war in Iraq was the decisive issue, with six out of ten opposing the war. About four out of ten voters said (in exit polls) their vote was a vote against Bush.

The result is Democratic control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate (from next January). For the next two years Bush will be a ‘lame-duck’ president. Around the world, as well as in the US, many millions of people have breathed a huge sigh of relief, hoping that Bush will at least be checked in his remaining period of office. "This is the beginning of the end of a six-year nightmare for the world", commented the leader of the Socialist group in the EU parliament.

Twelve years of Republican domination of Congress has ended. Democrats won 24 of 33 Senate seats up for election, winning seven million more votes than Republicans. They now control the Senate 51 to 49. In House elections, the Democrats defeated at least 29 Republican incumbents. Normally, around 80% of incumbents keep their seats, fortified by big corporate donations and gerrymandering of the districts. The Democrats so far hold 230 House seats, while the Republicans hold 196.

Against the trend, the pro-war Democrat, Joe Lieberman, running as an independent, kept his Senate seat in Connecticut. This was because around 70% of Republican voters voted Lieberman, while his ‘anti-war’ opponent, Ned Lamont, a multi-millionaire businessman, more or less abandoned his anti-war stance.

The Democrats now hold 28 out of 50 state governors. Also against the trend, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican governor in California, was re-elected. After the earlier defeat of his right-wing measures, Arnold apologised to the electorate and stole the Democrats’ policies. The Democrats now control both chambers in 23 state legislatures, while the Republicans control 16.

Defeated on key issues

WHAT A CHANGE since Bush’s sweeping re-election in 2004! Presenting himself as commander-in-chief in the ‘war against terrorism’, Bush played on fear of terrorist attacks. The feeble opposition of the Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry, and the political cowardice of the Democrats in general, allowed Bush to get away with it.

Bush boasted that he had ‘political capital’ and intended to use it. Karl Rove and other Republican spin-doctors claimed there had been a massive swing to the right, the basis for a permanent Republican majority. This political mirage has now evaporated. Rove’s strategy of mobilising the core Republican vote, especially the religious right, while trashing the Democrats to reduce their turnout, did not work this time. Nor did the tactic succeed of using conservative ballot propositions on religious-social issues to strengthen the right-wing vote. In South Dakota, for instance, voters defeated an extreme ban on all abortions by a margin of 56% to 44%. At the same time, six states, all won by Bush in 2000 and 2004, voted overwhelmingly for initiatives to raise the states’ minimum wage.

Iraq is the main factor. An overwhelming majority now sees the war as a disastrous mistake. They have seen through the phoney argument that the war reduces the threat of terrorist attack against the US. The immediate resignation of Bush’s defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, symbolised the defeat of the whole neo-con project. (See: Iraq debacle, No easy exit for US imperialism, Peter Taaffe, page 12)

Next to Iraq, corruption has been a major issue. In exit polls, three-quarters of voters said corruption influenced their vote. The recent conviction of Washington lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, sentenced to five-and-a-half years jail and a $21 million fine, revealed a web of corruption between corporations, lobbyists and members of Congress, mostly Republicans. Over 20 members of Congress had received campaign contributions, free trips, and other perks in return for corrupt decisions favouring big-business interests. Earlier this year, the former House majority leader, Tom DeLay, was forced to resign from Congress, under indictment for flouting campaign finance laws and facing several congressional ‘ethics’ investigations.

More recently, the scandal around congressman Mark Foley, involving inappropriate sexual communications with under-age congressional pages, has further discredited leading Republicans, who had covered up the abuse for years.

But these are not the only grievances against Bush and Republican politicians. The administration’s criminally incompetent response to the catastrophic impact of hurricane Katrina on New Orleans and the Gulf area has not been forgotten.

The immigration issue also played an important part in the Republican’s defeat. Playing the anti-immigration card failed to save Republican seats. Opinion polls show that 57% of voters want undocumented immigrant workers to be given an opportunity of applying for legal status and not be deported. Earlier, Bush held out the promise of some form of legalisation, and won 40% to 44% of the Latino vote in 2004. But he has failed to deliver, while hard-line Republicans have proposed deportation measures, resulting in the 70% Latino vote for the Democrats this time.

Moreover, Bush’s ‘success’ with the economy has not impressed most people. Corporate profits have soared, but real incomes have stagnated. The gulf between rich and poor has deepened. The typical chief executive of a big corporation now ‘earns’ more before Monday lunchtime than a low-paid worker earns in a year. In 2005, the average CEO received 821 times a minimum wage earner.

No programme, no bite

THE DRAMATIC CHANGE in control of Congress reflects a vote against Bush and the Republicans, not a positive vote for the Democrats. In fact, it was in spite of the Democrats, whose election success is a pale reflection of the deep reservoir of dissatisfaction and anger among US workers and sections of the middle class. Besides, only 40% of the electorate voted, though this was a slightly higher turnout than usual in mid-term elections. In the main, it is the more affluent strata who turn out to vote. The poorest, most downtrodden people have no confidence at all in politicians or the political system.

Before the elections, Democratic leaders like Rahm Emmanuel, a Chicago Representative and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign, pushed to put in place ‘moderate’ and conservative Democratic candidates. For instance, Heath Shuler, who won a House seat in North Carolina, is anti-abortion, pro-gun lobby, and anti-tax (against more social spending). After this election, both the centrist, Clintonite ‘New Democrats’ and socially conservative ‘Blue Dog’ caucuses of the Democrats are strengthened. Some of these Democrats campaigned on the basis of ‘economic populism’, voicing workers’ anger over job losses and squeezed earnings (without offering any solutions), but espousing socially conservative sentiment on abortion, gay marriage, gun control, tax cuts, etc. It is now estimated that, in the new Congress, the New Democrat caucus will consist of about 50, the Blue Dog caucus will have about 44, while the Progressive caucus, a dilute version of New Deal liberalism, will have about 70.

The Democrats rode a wave of anti-war sentiment, but they have not put forward a clear anti-war position. Their call for ‘redeployment’ of US troops, widely assumed to mean withdrawal from Iraq, remains a vague slogan. They have no clear plan. Before the election, Howard Dean, who made his own bid for the Democratic presidential candidacy in 2004 on the basis of anti-war rhetoric, said: "We will put some pressure on him [Bush] to have some benchmarks, some timetables and a real plan other than to stay the course". That was vague enough. But after the election he said: "We can’t leave Iraq now. We need to stabilise the situation". Hillary Clinton, who is already campaigning for the 2008 presidential election, favours stabilising the position in Iraq, which would mean more US troops.

Comparing the policies of two of the candidates tipped to run for the presidency in 2008, the editor of the right-wing magazine, The National Interest, wrote: "Compare the statements of [Democratic] Senator Hillary Clinton with those of [Republican] Senator John McCain and you will see a nearly identical approach to world affairs". (Nicholas Gvosdev, International Herald Tribune, 18 October)

Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania, veteran Democrat, is still calling for relatively rapid withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, with the deployment of a quick reaction force in Kuwait. However, John Batiste, a retired army general who vehemently criticised Bush’s policy and called for Rumsfeld’s resignation, described congressional proposals for troop withdrawals as "terribly naïve". "There are lots of things that have to happen to set them up for success", Batiste said – including sending more troops to stabilise the situation. ‘Redeployment’ was a successful election slogan, but falls far short of a viable plan of action. The Democrats are incapable of ending the war and rapidly withdrawing all US forces.

Democrats have attacked Bush over Iraq and criticise his draconian restriction of democratic rights at home. They are promising investigations through congressional hearings, using powers of subpoena if necessary to get evidence from Bush and his officials. Turning Capitol Hill into subpoenaville for Bush may well be a powerful weapon in the Democrats’ hands. But even before the elections, Nancy Pelosi (now Democratic House leader), announced that impeachment of Bush was "not on the table" (even though 61% of her San Francisco electoral district voted for an impeachment resolution). Revealing their lack of bite, Senator Charles Schumer of New York, a leading Democrat, said: "We are not going to hold a whole raft of hearings pointing a finger back at 2001". The Democratic leaders are more concerned about preparing for the 2008 elections than seriously holding Bush to account for his ‘crimes and misdemeanours’.

So, before the elections, they effectively let Bush off the hook for all the lies and deceptions, all the unconstitutional and illegal actions, he deployed to launch the occupation of Iraq. And is it any wonder? The big majority of Democrats in Congress voted for Bush’s war powers, the repressive Patriot Act and Homeland Security apparatus, and loyally renewed funding for the war. On 29 September, the Senate unanimously approved the Pentagon’s $448 billion budget (up 40% since 2001), including a further $70 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As recently as 17 October, twelve Democratic Senators and 39 Democratic Representatives voted for the Military Commission’s Act, which legalises arbitrary detention and interrogation – in reality, the torture – of terrorist suspects. It also grants the president unprecedented new powers to declare a ‘public emergency’ and station troops anywhere in the US, taking control of state-based National Guard units, to ‘suppress public disorder’.

The Democrats are equally vague and evasive on economic issues. They are promising to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.30. Even this would be a welcome improvement for the poorest workers, the working poor. But it is really a pathetic increase. The Democrats say they will empower Medicare (which provides medical care for retirees) to negotiate the prices of prescription drugs with the pharmaceutical companies. But they have no plans to establish a comprehensive, state-financed health system. They will no doubt use their control of Congress to block any further Republican plans to privatise social security (the Federal pension system), but such is the popular opposition that Bush himself was forced to abandon his plans after re-election in 2004.

For years, many Democrats have denounced Bush’s tax cuts for the super-rich. They are pledged to block the extension to Bush’s tax cuts beyond 2010 when they are currently due to expire. But they are now saying it will take six months to a year to review the tax structure. Howard Dean "cautioned against expecting the tax cuts many Democrats want for the middle class [ie blue-collar and white-collar workers]". (International Herald Tribune, 13 May) Eager to reassure big business that they are ‘fiscal conservatives’, Dean said that Democrats support a budget-balancing approach.

Democratic leaders continually promise ‘reform’. But no one should expect any serious anti-corporate measures or significant economic improvements for workers. The new Democratic majority will start from where the Clinton administration left off. Bill Clinton implemented NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Area) which cost millions of manufacturing jobs and pushed down US wage levels. He also slashed welfare benefits for single mothers and their children. Clinton’s treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, himself a Wall Street banker, carried through measures of deregulation and tax cuts which helped foster the dotcom boom and profits bonanza of the late 1990s. The next few years, however, will not be a repeat of the finance-driven boom of 1994-2001. US capitalism faces the prospect of deep economic crisis, for which the Democratic leaders are totally unprepared.

Corporate politics

THE DEMOCRATS ARE the alternative party of US big business. The whole political system is designed to maintain the ‘Republicrat’ duopoly, and exclude challenges from third parties. Discontent with one party is then safely channelled into support for the other.

Both major parties receive huge sums of corporate finance. In this election Republican candidates spent $559 million, while Democrats spent $456 million. These figures, moreover, do not include candidates’ own personal funds invested in their campaigns. Hillary Clinton, campaigning for a safe Senate seat in New York state, spent $30 million on her campaign. Overall, the mid-term elections cost the two parties $2.8 billion.

In the closing stages of the campaign, when it began to become clear that the Democrats would make big gains, a number of big corporations began to switch their finance from the Republicans to the Democrats. Pfizer, Sprint, UPS, Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin, etc, all made big donations to the Democrats. Undoubtedly, they believe such contributions will grease their access to congressional leaders and produce the kind of policies they want.

The close links between big business and Democratic policymakers is shown by Pelosi herself. Although denounced by Republicans as an extreme ‘California liberal’, Pelosi received substantial campaign funds from venture capital firms in Silicon Valley, a few miles south of her San Francisco district. These firms, which made millions starting up hi-tech firms which later floated on the stock exchange with inflated share prices, are campaigning against the Sarbanes-Oxley Corporate Governance Law, introduced after the Enron and WorldCom scandals to curb insider trading and other fraudulent practices. US capital markets, they complain, are losing business because of these regulations – and Pelosi and other Democratic leaders are campaigning to dilute the regulations. An editorial in the International Herald Tribune (13 November) headlined this campaign as "a shameless corporate bid to soften the rules".

At the same time, labour unions continue to make massive donations to the Democrats. In the 2004 elections, labour unions donated $55.4 million, 90% to Democratic candidates. This year it will have been even more.

In this way, the labour leaders have tied organised labour to one of the big-business parties. Even though the Democrats long ago abandoned most of the liberal, social-welfare policies of the New Deal era, the labour leaders stick to this approach. Time and again, they have blocked (with one or two honourable exceptions) every move to break away and build a new, independent party of the working class. So organised labour remains the ‘tail’ of the Democrats, handing over millions of dollars but exerting little or no influence on policy.

In these mid-term elections, the Green Party was the main party standing on an independent, anti-war, anti-corporate platform. With the system stacked in favour of the two big-business parties, and with limited funds, most Green candidates got less than 2% of the vote. In a few cases, however, Green candidates gained significant support. In Illinois, Green candidate for governor, Rich Whitney, won 11%. In a two-way contest with a Democrat for a House seat in Colorado, Tom Kelly won 21%. In Richmond, California, a town of over 100,000 near Oakland, a Green was elected mayor. (See: US Elections, The Socialist No.463, 16-22 November)

The outcome of the mid-term elections reveals a glaring contradiction. On the one side, the angry, anti-war mood of the majority of voters, resulting in a decisive defeat for the Republicans. On the other, the wavering, pro-business stance of the Democrats, completely failing to give expression to this mood.

Nevertheless, millions will welcome the Republicans’ defeat. Many will be prepared to give the Democrats time. Many are no doubt thinking that the Democrats will need to take the presidency in 2008 before they can implement real changes. But in the next few years, even more than under Clinton’s presidency, the Democrats will demonstrate their subservience to big business, with little or nothing to offer the working class. They have no magic solution to Iraq, and will become embroiled in the disastrous mess that Bush has created.

For those who wish to fight for the interests of working people, and want to see a fundamental change in the system, the struggle to build a mass party independent of big business and committed to anti-corporate policies is top of the agenda.


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