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International Socialist Review Issue 30, July–August 2003

Anybody but Bush?

by Alan Maass

The issue of the elections has already become an arena of debate, in particular among activists involved in the antiwar movement. This article by Socialist Worker editor ALAN MAASS, is the first of a series of articles that the International Socialist Review plans to run on the question: What attitude should progressives take to the 2004 presidential election?

HOW CAN George W. Bush be stopped? Many people among the millions who oppose Bush’s wars abroad and at home are asking that question. Even though Election Day is more than a year away, a good number have already pinned their hopes on the 2004 presidential vote. "What is at stake, then, is nothing less than the attempted transformation of a tolerably free society into a variant of the extreme regimes of the past century. In that context, the national elections of 2004 represent a crisis in its original meaning, a turning point. The question for citizens is: Which way?" Sheldon Wolin wrote in the May 1 Nation. Antiwar activists Carl Davidson and Marilyn Katz, in a discussion paper urging antiwar forces to turn to the 2004 elections, call for the defeat of Bush’s "War Party" or else "this party will move to control the world."

The concern about getting rid of Bush is certainly justified. Ever since he stole the White House in 2000, Bush’s campaign-trail rhetoric about "compassionate conservatism" has gone out the window. As president, he has carried out a hard-line right-wing agenda across the board–from the Bush Doctrine urging preemptive wars overseas, to his take-no-prisoners domestic policies deliberately aimed at making corporations more powerful and the rich richer.

Even more frightening to those who oppose this agenda is the way that Bush is already considered–according to the conventional wisdom in Washington anyway–the odds-on favorite in 2004. Since the September 11 attacks two years ago, Bush’s job approval rating has remained consistently high compared to past presidents. And with a series of mega-fundraisers over the late spring and early summer, the Bush reelection campaign outdid the Democrats in raising money without really trying–quietly pocketing $34 million for the second quarter of the year, compared to $7.5 million for the top Democratic money-raiser, even though Bush won’t even be opposed in the Republican primaries.

So it’s little wonder that the 2004 election was an underlying issue, for example, at the United for Peace and Justice national conference of peace activists in Chicago in early June. And it was an even more explicit theme a few days earlier, at the Take Back America conference in Washington, D.C., organized by the Campaign for America’s Future–a D.C.-based organization with ties to organized labor and mainstream liberal groups like the National Organization for Women. The Campaign explicitly views itself as a liberal counterweight to the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)–the conservative organization within the party that has led the way in pulling the Democrats to the right, beginning with the DLC’s favorite son, former President Bill Clinton.

In contrast to much smaller gatherings previously, this year’s Take Back America conference drew some 1,600 people–and not only staffers for unions, liberal groups and the Democratic Party this time, but grassroots activists, some from the antiwar movement. The turnout was another symptom of the stewing anger with the Bush administration–and the desire to do something about it. But what should be done? And can the Democrats be trusted to do it?

Two capitalist parties

One major reason that the Bush administration has gotten away with so much has been the behavior of the Democrats. Especially since September 11, but even before, the Democratic leadership in Washington has caved in again and again to the White House. Democrats have often provided Republicans with a comfortable margin of victory, including the resolution authorizing war on Iraq, the USA PATRIOT Act, the misnamed "partial-birth" abortion ban and both of Bush’s tax-cut giveaways to the rich, to name just a few examples.

This isn’t because Bush is too popular to challenge. He may have high approval ratings, but when it comes to his positions on a range of issues–from tax cuts, to the privatization of Social Security, to education–what Bush actually stands for is much more unpopular than he is personally. "I am not in awe of [Bush’s] political position, in spite of his approval rating," Stan Greenberg, one of the Democratic Party’s top pollsters, told the Take Back America conference. "I am a little in awe of his sense of timing and his ability to move events." Greenberg’s point is that the Bush White House has been willing to take a stand and use whatever means are necessary to win–while the Democrats dawdle. However, this is really a statement about the Democrats’ cowardice. On any number of issues where they have public support to take on the administration–including the 2002 congressional elections, which the Democrats fumbled away because they refused to stand for anything, allowing the Republicans to make the election about what they wanted–the "party of working people" has ducked.

On one level, this is nothing new. The Democratic Party’s claim to represent ordinary people has always hidden a different reality. At any point in time, most Democrats are likely to be to the left of most Republicans. But the differences between the two, important though they may be, are really quite small compared to what they share–an agenda that puts the interests of big business first, even if the two parties sometimes disagree about how.

Ultimately, the Democrats are not a party that represents the interests of working people. They represent big business. Whenever Corporate America’s preferred choice–the Republicans–become too discredited, it can count on the Democrats, waiting in the wings with predictable and non-threatening policies. This is ultimately why the Democrats–to the great frustration of many of their most dedicated supporters–usually give up ground to the Republicans, and not the other way around.

As former Republican analyst Kevin Phillips once remarked:

Part of the reason that U.S. "survival of the fittest" periods of economic restructuring are so relentless rests on the performance of the Democrats as history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party. They do not interfere much with capitalist momentum, but wait for excesses and the inevitable populist reaction.

Many of the biggest U.S. corporations shovel money to the Democrats as much as they do to the Republicans. For example, in the 1996 presidential election, many of the top 50 contributors to both parties, from Ernst & Young and Paine Webber, gave almost equal amounts to both. Despite this record, the same appeal is made at every election–while the Democrats may not be perfect, at least they are the "lesser of two evils."

In the 2000 election, discontent with this Republican and Democratic "duopoly" over national politics produced the most successful left-wing challenge in half a century–the Green Party presidential campaign of Ralph Nader, who won nearly 3 percent of the vote nationwide, despite the abuse he took from Democrats for allegedly throwing the election to Bush. In reality, Al Gore has only himself to blame for the miserable campaign he ran in an election that was his to lose. Nader was a lightning rod for millions of people fed up with a system that offers so little choice.

But the 2004 election is already shaping up very differently. Many Nader supporters–even members of the Green Party itself–are talking about backing the Democratic candidate in order to defeat Bush.

"If there were a chance that a Democrat who was significantly different could beat Bush, I wouldn’t put my energy into working on the Green campaign," says Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the global justice organization Global Exchange and the Green Party’s candidate for U.S. Senate from California in 2000. "I really do want to knock off Bush." Benjamin says that she is leaning toward a limited Green presidential campaign that doesn’t try to win votes in states that could tip the balance for the Democrats in the Electoral College. "[The Democrats are] shameful in terms of even calling themselves an opposition party," she said. "But despite that, I still think that we’ve got to get rid of Bush. He’s too dangerous for the globe, and too dangerous for any of the issues we stand for."

Liberal Democrats themselves are even more outspoken. At the Take Back America conference, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), one of the top liberals in the House of Representatives, said that people who feel fed up with the Democrats should "get over it." She went on to say:

Like it or not, either George W. Bush or the Democratic nominee, whoever he may be, will be our next president. We should, by all means, be working to promote a progressive agenda with each and every candidate and to make the nominee as progressive as possible. But in the end, we are going to have to dedicate ourselves to electing the Democrat. To do otherwise is a luxury we cannot afford. I look forward to our campaign for a universal health care plan or a real education bill or labor law reform. We cannot even have that conversation now. We are trying to hang on by our fingernails to what we have now. And we are losing.

Is anybody better than Bush?

The message is clear: Any Democrat is better than Bush. But is this true?

Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, admits that the field of announced Democrats trying for the party’s presidential nomination in 2004–at least the ones who are given a chance of winning–won’t appear very impressive to liberals or radicals. "But I think what’s different is that we’ve seen what three years of the Bush administration means in terms of damage," Hickey said. "Even the worst Democratic candidate is usually better than the Republican candidate, and we know who the Republican candidate is going to be. So it’s a pretty basic judgment: Do you want four more years of George W. Bush, or do you want someone who at least will not do additional damage."

That’s a pretty modest appeal–vote for a Democratic president who would at least do no more harm. Even this doesn’t stand up to examination. What about Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), Al Gore’s running mate in 2000 and one of the early frontrunners for the nomination? Just how big a difference is there between him and Bush? Lieberman loudly supported the war on Iraq, demands that the White House spend more money on homeland security, made his reputation as a Hollywood-bashing cultural conservative and regularly attacks other Democratic presidential hopefuls for proposing "big government" programs to fix the U.S. health care crisis.

At this point, the two most talked-about candidates in the Democratic field are considered liberals–Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. It’s really a sign of how far the whole political spectrum has been pulled to the right–that these two could appear to be the great hope for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

Like all the candidates, Kerry can talk tough about challenging the Republican agenda. But actions speak louder then words. He voted for both the USA PATRIOT Act and the congressional resolution giving Bush a blank check for war on Iraq. Meanwhile, his appearance at the Take Back America conference was a prime example of how Democrats snub their supporters to appeal to the "center." Kerry spent the final portion of his speech lecturing the overwhelmingly antiwar crowd about why he rejects

those who reflexively oppose any U.S. military intervention anywhere, or who see U.S. power as a mostly malignant force in the world, or who place a higher value on achieving multilateral consensus than necessarily protecting vital interests of our nation…. If Democrats are not prepared to make America safer, stronger and more secure, for all we care about all those other issues, we will not win back the White House, and we won’t deserve to…. We should not be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them in New York City. An administration that lived up to its own rhetoric about "smoking out of the caves" or "wanted dead or alive" would have sent American forces–the best troops in the world, not Afghan warlords, who a week earlier were fighting on the other side–into Tora Bora, to attack and capture Osama bin-Laden and the leaders of al-Qaeda.

Dean is the self-appointed dark-horse candidate, who has succeeded in gaining attention by winning supporters among grassroots Democrats. Before he began running for president as a "maverick," Dean was firmly positioned in the Democratic Party mainstream. What has set him apart from the other candidates is his willingness to say that the Democrats won’t beat the Republicans unless they give people a reason to vote for them. Dean’s standard line in his stump speech explicitly takes on the conservative Democrats in the DLC. "The way to get elected in this country isn’t to be like Republicans," he says. "It’s to stand up and fight."

Nevertheless, Dean’s recent behavior as he officially announced his campaign showed his willingness to distance himself from left-wing supporters. In the name of "telling the hard truth" about the issues, Dean declared that his solution to the Social Security "crisis" was…increase the retirement age to 70! He suddenly abandoned his perfectly acceptable reasons for opposing the death penalty (the innocent might die, the state shouldn’t have the power of life or death, executions aren’t a deterrent) to express his support for the machinery of death–a transparent bid for votes in the primary elections in southern states like South Carolina. Dean gained a following among activists for taking a stand against Bush’s Iraq war–though his actual position was more qualified than most people realized. Dean seems more on board with the Bush Doctrine than his position on the invasion of Iraq would indicate. He told the Jewish weekly The Forward, "The United States has to...take a much harder line on Iran and Saudi Arabia because they’re funding terrorism." The more Dean becomes accepted as a "serious" candidate for the nomination, the more he will appear the moderate and mainstream candidate that he actually is.

Dean’s views on U.S. policy in the Middle East can hardly be seen as progressive. When asked whether his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict coincided more with the liberal Zionist Americans for Peace Now (APN) or the more hawkish American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Dean answered, "My view is closer to AIPAC’s view." He backed $8 billion in U.S. loan guarantees for Israel, and his official campaign position on the conflict is that "terrorism against Israel must end"–though he had nothing to say about Israel’s brutal state terror used to enforce its military occupation of Palestinian land.

There are other people running for the nomination who are more consistently liberal–Rev. Al Sharpton, former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). None of these three is given much chance of actually winning the nomination, so it’s hard to see how they could have an impact on the party as a whole. Thus, Kucinich gave the best-received speech among the seven candidates who addressed the Take Back America conference. Afterward–even at an avowedly liberal conference–talk among attendees returned to whether they could tolerate a more conservative Democrat.

"I think a lot of people now are agonizing," says Barbara Ehrenreich, a Nader supporter in 2000 who spoke at the conference. "How far would they go to get ‘anything but Bush’? A lot of people I know say it stops at Lieberman." For the time being, many activists from the antiwar or global justice movements can identify with a candidate like Kucinich without having to face the decision that will come when Kucinich almost certainly loses. When the eventual nominee is chosen, the Sharptons and Kuciniches will have a time-honored role to play for the Democratic Party. Like Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition campaigns of the 1980s, they will be expected to accept defeat–and round up their supporters behind whatever candidate does win, no matter how conservative.

The lesser and the greater evil

Opponents of the Republican agenda felt the same urgency about retaking the White House in 1992–and in 1984 and 1988 for that matter–when Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. were on the rampage. The same argument–another four years of Reagan or Bush would be a disaster, and the left therefore had to bury its criticisms and unite behind the Democrats–could be heard everywhere.

But what we got after 12 years of Republican rule in the White House was finally brought to an end wasn’t an end to the Republican agenda. Instead, the Clinton-Gore administration carried through very similar policies. There turned out to be a vast gulf between Clinton’s populist rhetoric that he used to defeat Bush Sr., and his practice once he became president. This shouldn’t have been surprising. Clinton and Gore were both members of the conservative Democratic Leadership Council that explicitly formulated a Democratic strategy aimed at moving the party away from the "special interest" concerns of women, labor and African Americans and toward policies less distinguishable, even in rhetoric, from the Republican Party.

After promising sweeping health care reform, Clinton quickly scuttled them, bowing to a mass lobbying onslaught by health insurance companies. He betrayed Haitian refugees to whom he had promised asylum. He surrendered to Pentagon bigots with his disastrous "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy for gays in the military. Under pressure from the drug companies, he withdrew plans to provide free immunizations for children. He barely lifted a finger when Congress defeated legislation banning the use of scabs during strikes. At the end of his first term, three million more people in America were without health care.

Clinton went out of his way to present himself just as "tough on crime" as his Republican counterparts. He endorsed expanding the federal death penalty, limiting death row appeals and backed increased spending on prisons. Under his "one strike and you’re out" policy for public housing residents, tenants even suspected of being involved in drugs could now be expelled from their housing–whether or not they were ever convicted of a crime. He touted his commitment to increasing border patrols and explained to Business_Week how he hoped that his administration would "generate a lot of millionaires."

Even worse, when Bill Clinton signed into law outrages like welfare "reform," the liberal organizations that could be expected to mobilize a response were silent. Their justification was explicit–opposition to the Clinton administration might damage the Democrats’ chances in the 1996 election. "This is a bad bill, but a good strategy," said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), explaining why he would vote for the welfare bill he opposed. "In order to continue economic and social progress, we must keep President Clinton in office…. Sometimes in order to make progress and move ahead, you have to stand up and do the wrong thing."

To listen to today’s discussion about election 2004, it’s as if Washington’s attack on working and poor people began in January 2001, when Bush took over the White House. For example, at the Take Back America conference, Barbara Ehrenreich quoted Bush describing welfare reform as a "resounding success"–and criticized him for this blatant lie. The fact is that Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party leadership have exactly the same opinion about the welfare reform that they themselves helped to push through. Even the liberal Nation was forced to admit after Clinton signed the welfare bill into law,

Bill Clinton and much of the Democratic Party have made the Republicans’ dream a reality. And they have sentenced 3.5 million children to be dropped from public assistance by 2001, condemned a million more children to poverty and demonized legal immigrants.

Likewise, other speakers referred to the recent Federal Communications Commission vote on new rules that will make it easier for right-wing press barons such as Rupert Murdoch to expand their media empires. No one mentioned the Telecommunications Act of 1996, shepherded through Congress by Al Gore, which set the stage for today’s media merger mania. Leaders of organized labor criticized the Bush White House’s anti-union offensive. But they neglected to point out that the Clinton White House championed the NAFTA free trade deal, a piece of legislation held near and dear by U.S. corporations. Former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich, in an article titled "Why Gore is good for business," explains why the capitalist class was not worried by a Gore victory in the 2000 election:

No administration in modern history has been as good for American Business as the Clinton-Gore team. None has been as solicitous of the concerns of business leaders, none has generated as much profit for business and none has presided over as buoyant a stock market or as huge an increase in executive pay. And no vice president in modern history has had as much influence in setting an administration’s agenda as Mr. Gore.

Business should bear in mind a long and distinguished pattern to American politics: Once in office, Democratic presidents tend to shift to the right without risk of losing their Democratic base because it has no one else to turn to.

There are differences, of course, between the two parties. Bill Clinton vetoed several versions of legislation banning the late-term abortion procedure misnamed partial-birth abortion. Bush is about to sign the ban into law. But Clinton didn’t reverse the trend toward the erosion of abortion rights under his watch. On a state level, abortion rights continued to be chipped away. On the election trail, Clinton had pledged to pass a "Freedom of Choice Act" to guarantee the right to abortion. After his election, he barely mentioned it again. And he allowed congressionally imposed restrictions on abortion for federal employees, District of Columbia residents and Medicaid recipients to pass. If anything, having Clinton in the White House simply meant that the forces that should have been mobilizing to fight the erosion of abortion rights in this country became complacent.

Promoters of the "anybody but Bush" argument cite Bush’s foreign policy as the key reason for backing a Democrat. Certainly, the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war and aggressive unilateral military intervention around the world represents a shift (at least in terms of stated policy) from the methods of previous administrations–including that of Bush Sr. But the overall aims of U.S. intervention under Clinton and now Bush–to assert the U.S. role as the world’s sole superpower–are still the same. If anything, what was most notable about Clinton’s foreign policy was how he maintained a strong commitment to U.S. military strength in spite of the so-called peace dividend. As Lance Selfa wrote in the International Socialist Review a month before Bush’s selection in the 2000 race:

Clinton’s plan for the post—Cold War military adopted most of the outgoing Bush administration’s assumptions. It preserved a Cold War—sized military after the Cold War. The U.S. now spends about 85 percent of what it did at the height of the Cold War to maintain a military with the power to intervene anywhere in the world. In 1998, Clinton announced a six-year boost to the military budget of $112 billion, including a go-ahead to the Pentagon’s biggest boondoggle, a "national missile defense" system…

When Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush’s advisers recently attacked the Clinton-Gore administration for presiding over a decline in military "readiness," former Reagan administration Pentagon official Lawrence Korb rose to their defense. Korb noted that military budgets under Clinton and Gore actually spent more than President Bush had planned had he won the 1992 election. The budget for training, readiness and maintenance is actually 40 percent higher per person in uniform than it was under Bush, Korb pointed out. Six of Clinton’s eight budgets called for increases in military spending.

Clinton-Gore dispatched troops around the world far more than any other modern administration. Before launching the 1999 war against Yugoslavia, Clinton sent U.S. forces into combat situations 46 times. This compares to only 26 times for Presidents Ford (4), Carter (1), Reagan (14) and Bush (7) combined. Clinton, the one-time anti—Vietnam War protester, continued Bush’s 1992 invasion of Somalia, invaded Haiti in 1994, bombed Serbia in 1995 and 1999, Sudan and Afghanistan in 1997 and Iraq almost continuously throughout his administration.

Clinton’s foreign policy focused on the use of economic coercion of the IMF and the World Bank to enforce U.S. interests abroad, combined with a series of "humanitarian interventions" to revive the legitimacy of American military force. In this period, liberals shamefully helped give cover for U.S. intervention abroad. There is no doubt that U.S. foreign policy has taken a step up in the level of agressiveness and its willingness to engage in "regime change." But Clinton’s foreign policy certainly helped pave the way for this shift. Moreover, it is important to understand that any president after September 11 was going to launch a more aggressive foreign policy. Given Clinton and Gore’s support for the first Gulf War, their ongoing commitment to the sanctions and to bombing Iraq, Clinton’s support for CIA-sponsored covert operations in Iraq, and his anti-al-Qaeda missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan, it is a stretch to think that there would be much that is fundamentally different in U.S. foreign policy had Gore become president. Perhaps Gore would have made more of an effort to secure a larger coalition of support for an invasion of Iraq, and perhaps the timing of the invasion would have been different, but it’s hard to think beyond that what would have been different.

What marginal differences there are between Republican and Democratic presidents are no excuse for amnesia when it comes to the Democrats’ sorry record. Anyone who is considering voting for a Democrat as the lesser evil in 2004 should think about how organized labor and mainstream liberal organizations found themselves disarmed when they fell in line behind the Clinton White House. As Robert Reich points out, if Democrats know that they have the support of those to their left safely in hand, they will always pander to the right in the search for more votes. That’s why those who vote for the lesser evil usually get both the lesser and the greater evil.

Who’s "sitting in"

An independent political alternative that stands uncompromisingly against the two-party duopoly in Washington is every bit as necessary today as in 2000. Ralph Nader has not said yet whether he will run again in 2004, though Green Party members say that he is inclined toward another campaign. Another potential presidential candidate for the Greens is former Rep. Cynthia McKinney, who lost her seat in Congress last year after she was targeted by a right-wing crusade–and the national Democratic Party abandoned her.

On the other hand, Nader disappointed his supporters in 2000 by all but disappearing from the political scene after Election Day–even when the Bush gang’s theft of the Florida election would have provided the perfect setting to continue his campaign against the corruption of U.S. politics. What’s more, a Green Party presidential campaign is unlikely to have the same kind of audience in the face of the pervasive "anybody but Bush" climate. Green Party supporters will definitely find themselves in a much smaller minority this time around. But none of this changes the need for an independent alternative–even if the practical possibility of it recedes in 2004.

Does all this mean that we supporters of a third-party challenge don’t care about stopping Bush? Not at all. We have to mobilize in every way against the Bush agenda, around whatever issues where struggle develops–including those that the Democrats find too inconvenient to support.

These struggles from below are the only way that real victories have been won in U.S. history–not by relying on politicians, no matter how liberal. Thus, the major pieces of civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965 that marked the success of the struggle against Jim Crow segregation came at the crest of a mass movement of African Americans that shook the political power structure in the South and the U.S. as a whole. Before that, Democrats–including the party’s northern liberal wing–resisted taking action.

As Howard Zinn put it in an interview with Socialist Worker right after George Bush took office,

There’s hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in–in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating–those are the things that determine what happens.

If the Clinton-Gore record suddenly looks rosier compared to the crimes of the Neanderthals occupying the White House now, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Clinton stands out in many ways as more conservative than the presidents who came before him–Republicans included. So, for example, Richard Nixon launched more anti-discrimination and affirmative action programs than Clinton. Obviously, that’s not because Nixon was more liberal on civil rights–on the contrary, he was a miserable right-winger. But Nixon was under pressure to act from the mass social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. Clinton didn’t face these, in part, because organized labor and mainstream liberal groups fell in line behind the White House during the 1990s on the reasoning that the Democrats were the lesser evil and that we all should give Bill a chance.

As long as Corporate America dominates Washington and the most important votes are the dollars given by the biggest campaign contributors, the U.S. political system will remain out of touch with what working people want–and beyond of their ability to exercise any real democratic control.

The job of defeating the Bush agenda can’t be left to an unaccountable Democrat, who will decide which Republican policy to overturn, and which to keep. We cannot support another Democrat who spouts the minimum of populist rhetoric necessary to get elected, and then proceeds to put through policies subservient to big business at home and abroad. Time after time, movements have put their faith in the Democratic Party as the only "realistic" alternative, only to find that their concerns have been ignored. We need to organize that struggle from below, because, in the words of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, "without struggle there is no progress." And in the process, we can build an alternative to a political system where the only real choices come down to different versions of the status quo.

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