By LANCE SELFA
THE DEMOCRATIC victory in the November congressional midterm election represented a sharp rebuke to President Bush, and, above all, to his war in Iraq. But since Bush wasn’t on the ballot, popular frustration was vented against his most shameless congressional enablers, the Republicans, whose twelve-year reign set new lows for corruption, cronyism, and right-wing hypocrisy for an institution (the U.S. Congress) popularly associated with all those ills. The GOP went into the election with its leader, Bush, facing the lowest approval ratings of his term, and with leading members of the Republicans facing indictment (former Majority Leader Rep. Tom Delay), prison (Ohio Rep. Bob Ney) or disgrace and resignation (Florida Rep. Mark Foley).
Make no mistake: this was no instance of a gradual swing of the parliamentary pendulum. It was a sharp public rejection of one-party Republican rule and a slamming of the door on the 1994 “Republican revolution.” Even a shaken Bush, in his post-election news conference, described the Republican defeat as a “thumping.” And for an administration that never admits second thoughts or mistakes, Bush’s swift tossing overboard of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—the morning after Election Day—certainly looked like a recognition of reality.
The election marked a repudiation of the GOP and the stifling right-wing politics that had come to dominate mainstream political discussion for more than a decade. And the depth of the disaster in Iraq rendered useless the standard Bush/GOP election formula from 2002 and 2004—linking virtually any critic of their policies to “the terrorists.” Even as Republican candidates attempted to distance themselves from Bush’s disaster in Iraq, they found little solace in other right-wing issues dear to their conservative base—from tax cuts to the “war on terrorism” to immigrant-bashing. Right-wing Republicans may whip themselves into a lather over “illegal immigration,” but the broad public remained unmoved by GOP scare mongering—and almost seven out of ten Latinos voted Democrat.
The Democratic win was broad and decisive. In comparison to 2004, when Bush won reelection by a plurality of around three million votes, Democratic House members outpolled the Republicans by about 4.4 million votes, taking 52 percent of all votes cast for members of Congress (compared to 46 percent for Republicans). Democrats also captured the majority of the nation’s governorships for the first time since 1994, and the majority of state legislatures, too. The most astounding turnaround took place in “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire, where the Dems ousted both incumbent Republican representatives and captured the state legislature for the first time since 1874.
The Democrats’ strong showing in the Northeast reduced the Republican Party to a rump in that region. And Democratic gains in the rest of the country essentially chased the GOP back to its “base” in the former Confederacy, the only region of the country where the GOP won the majority of congressional votes. The “Southern strategy” that has sustained the GOP for more than a generation finally seems to have come back to haunt them.
According to exit polls, the main sources of the Democrats’ electoral majority were major shifts among political independents and moderates, Latinos, women, young people, and the least religious voters. There was also a class element in the vote. Almost 60 percent of those who said the state of the economy was their most important issue voted for the Democrats.
“To the extent that those most sensitive to the state of the economy are those whose personal fortunes are most precarious, the outcome might suggest that lower income voters were more resentful about economic misfortune than wealthy people were appreciative of the policies that may have benefited them,” wrote Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. “If this is so, it might indicate the start of some significant political reaction to wage stagnation. It is noteworthy that referenda to raise the minimum wage passed in six states.”
This economic polarization also showed itself in Election Day ideological and political polarization. That explains seemingly incongruous outcomes: immigrant-bashing Republican candidates lost out in Arizona while the state’s voters approved a referendum declaring English the state’s only official language. For the first time ever, a referendum to ban gay marriage lost (in Arizona), while at the same time, seven other similar referenda passed in other states. A grassroots campaign repealed a state legislative ban on abortion in “red” South Dakota while anti-abortion Democrat Robert Casey defeated incumbent Sen. Rick Santorum in “blue” Pennsylvania.
Why it happened
In retrospect, the incident that may have turned a bad election year for the GOP into a Democratic victory was the scandal that erupted in late September involving Rep. Mark Foley. For days, the Republican congressional leadership was consumed in a blame game aimed at saving their own hides when it became clear that its members, all the way up to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), covered for Foley’s sexual harassment of teenage congressional pages. These right-wing hacks who loudly proclaim their allegiance to “family values” to anyone who will listen were exposed as little more than a pack of hucksters. To the public the Foley scandal became a vivid illustration of the corruption and hypocrisy at the heart of the GOP Congress. The Foley scandal delivered the coup de grâce to a GOP leadership already engulfed in scandal and tied to an unpopular president and war.
The GOP implosion certainly flung the door wide open to the Democrats, but an establishment looking for a change was already unlocking it. Leakers inside the Pentagon and intelligence agencies determined to undermine the administration’s “stay the course” rhetoric in Iraq found willing accomplices in a national media that had only recently served as a Bush administration palace guard. Ex-generals, the press, and even pro-war politicians like Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman made a whipping boy of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld—only a few short years after the media was hailing him as a “rock star.”
Sections of big business and the rich jumped on the Democratic bandwagon too. Whether campaign donors were trying to push the GOP out or simply to assure themselves a “seat at the table” in a Democratic Congress, they were quite generous to the Democrats in 2006. As a result, the Democratic House and Senate campaign committees outspent their GOP counterparts by a total of $402 million to $354 million, according to Federal Election Commission figures available by late November. With so many forces lining up to force a change in Washington, the only real question before Election Day was how big the Democratic victory would be.
Even though a fed-up electorate delivered a decisive blow to the GOP, that fact seems to have escaped most of the mainstream pundits who remain constitutionally incapable of seeing the majority of Americans as anything other than a vast sea of right-wing yahoos. That’s why initial explanations for the Democratic win emerging from the Washington pundits pointed to victories of conservative Democrats to argue that the election wasn’t a repudiation of conservatism, but a reaffirmation of it. The Washington Post’s George Will led the way: “Free markets, including political markets, equilibrate, producing supplies to meet demands. The Democratic Party, a slow learner but educable, has dropped the subject of gun control and welcomed candidates opposed to parts or even all of the abortion rights agenda.
“The country remains receptive to conservatism. That doctrine — were it to become constraining on, rather than merely avowed by, congressional Republicans — can be their bridge back from the wilderness.”
The idea that voters rejected conservatives without rejecting conservatism may console Republicans. And the Democratic establishment allowed arguments like Will’s to run unchallenged. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders were crafting their own version of “conventional wisdom”: the notion that the Democrats’ victory owed to their “centrism” and “bipartisanship.”
What the public wants
The convenient thing about these analyses—just as the idea that Bush won reelection in 2004 because of an outpouring of voters concerned with “moral values”—is that they allow their purveyors to spin a few facts into a grand narrative that reinforces the conventional wisdom of the day. Conservatives can’t accept what has always been true since the advent of the “Republican revolution” in 1994: the vast majority of their ideas are unpopular. By the same token, the idea that Americans opted for moderation and bipartisanship serves the interests of the Democratic “centrists” like Rep. Rahm Emanuel and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who want to dampen any sense that they are prepared to break sharply with the neoliberal consensus that has governed Washington for a generation.
Yet, the pundits could attempt these spins because the message coming from the electorate was much more of a negative reaction to Bush, the Iraq War, and the GOP, than a positive endorsement of the Democratic agenda. And who could blame the voters? Even the most C-SPAN-addicted political junkie would have a hard time distilling what the Democratic agenda is. To win the election, it was good enough simply (and for the first time in six years) to pose as a believable option for those fed up with the clowns running the Congress. Voters took the only path they can in a system that offers them a choice between two capitalist parties. They threw the Republican bums out. Now they will wait and see if the Democrats prove they were worthy of being handed the reins of Congress.
Whatever the longer term implications of the elections will be, a few things are clear about what the public expects of Congress. First, six in ten Americans told Pew Center pollsters that they were “happy” that the Democrats had taken over the Congress. And by a fairly sizable 51–29 margin, the public says that “Democrats in Congress” should “take the lead on issues” rather than President Bush. So the public expects action. And it expects a break with the Bush agenda. Second, the public wants and expects a pullback from Iraq. Just under one-half of all Americans say the U.S. should bring the troops home from Iraq, compared to 20 percent who want to keep troops there and 17 percent who want to increase the number of troops. More Americans are worried the U.S. will stay in Iraq too long (55 percent) than believe the U.S. will sink chances of “leaving a stable democracy” if it pulls out too soon (33 percent), according to the Pew poll.
Since the election, the public’s desire to see the end of the Iraq war has only increased. Almost six in ten Americans support a “timetable for withdrawal” from Iraq and 73 percent of Americans said the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq within a year if the Iraqis wanted it, according to an early December poll conducted for the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes. In fact, a September 2006 poll of Iraqis—conducted by the same pollsters—found that 71 percent of Iraqis want the U.S. out in a year. So the majority of Iraqis and Americans agree: the U.S. must leave Iraq—the sooner, the better.
Will the Democrats deliver?
But are the Democrats prepared to deliver on these few, but clear, directives? If their initial noises in the wake of their victory are any indication, we shouldn’t expect much. There are several reasons for this. First, although Democrats and much of the American establishment reject the Bush administration’s head-in-the-sand “stay the course” in Iraq, they are no more committed to pulling up stakes in Iraq than is Bush. Democrats campaigned against Bush’s bungling of the war, not against the war itself. They are looking to the bipartisan commission headed by former Secretary of State and Bush fixer James Baker and former Democratic Representative and perennial blue ribbon committee member Lee Hamilton to provide them with a politically acceptable way in which to change course in Iraq so as to salvage U.S. credibility and influence in the Middle East.
If Democrats were clearly committed to do what their most committed supporters want them to do—that is, to end the war in Iraq—they could use their power over financing of the war to force Bush’s hand. However, pigs would fly before Democrats countenanced that.
Moreover, one has only to look at the line-up of congressional leaders to get a hint of where the Democratic Congress will stand. Incoming House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) supports the war. He defeated war critic Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Pa.) by a more than 2-to-1 vote in the Democratic House Caucus, a margin that should give an indication of where the majority of Democrats stand on the war. The two leading Democratic spokespeople on foreign affairs will be, in the House, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), and in the Senate, Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.). Lantos is one of the most fanatical Zionists in the Congress and a virtual neoconservative when it comes to just about every issue related to the Middle East, from invading Iraq to bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. And Biden, in addition to being in love with the sound of his own voice, is a champion of the U.S. right to unilaterally invade any country it deems to be a threat. Until recently, he was flogging a plan to partition Iraq into three ethnic zones.
So rather than seeing congressional pressure to end Bush’s disaster in Iraq, we are likely to see a proliferation of timetables, exit strategies, multi-layered conditional plans for “redeployment,” and so on. All of them will be designed to “change course” in Iraq, while prolonging the illegal U.S. occupation. Democrats may try to excuse themselves with the argument that they can’t really do anything in Iraq because Bush controls the White House and the Pentagon, but this is merely an alibi. If Democrats don’t act to end the Iraq War, it’s because they don’t want to.
Foreign policy analyst Stephen Zunes’ assessment is apt: “The year 2006 may be remembered in the same way as 1968, when elite public opinion finally caught up with public opinion in recognizing that an increasingly costly counter-insurgency war was unwinnable and that the United States needed to develop some kind of exit strategy. Thanks to continued support for the Vietnam War by the Democratic-controlled Congress, however, American troops were finally withdrawn only in 1973, with the strategic situation no better than it was five years earlier.” Will history repeat itself?
Other expectations for the Democratic leadership in Congress are likely to fare no better. Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has already told liberal partisans to give up on any notion that congressional Democrats will impeach Bush, Cheney, or the rest of the Bush gang (no matter how much they deserve it). With that sort of lead coming from the top, one could question whether the Democrats have the stomach to investigate thoroughly the criminality of the Bush regime—from Cheney’s collusion with the energy bosses in 2001 to the monumental corruption in Iraq. And watch to see if Democrats’ promises to “run the most ethical Congress ever” are toned down, and if the “bold” and “substantial” ethics reforms currently being touted become toothless technicalities when passed in the Democrats’ planned “first 100 hours” legislative package.
If ethics reform gets short shrift as incoming Democratic committee chairs reconsider their hostility to lobbyists who will come calling for favors, that’s a good bet that other types of “reform” will suffer too. After all, how many Democrats will want to anger the health care and insurance lobbies to address the health care crisis of affordability and accessibility? Already, news reports suggest that leading Democrats are backing off a pledge that should be a no-brainer: lifting Medicare’s prohibition on negotiating with drug companies to gain lower prescription drug prices. Liberal Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), set to take over the House Financial Services Committee, has offered big business a “grand bargain” of lower regulation and free trade agreements in exchange for business pledges to increase wages and benefits for workers. Although Frank assured business that “I’m a capitalist, and that means I’m for inequality,” it doesn’t appear that the capitalists are taking him up on his offer.
The way forward
As with the excuses on Iraq, the standard Democratic line will be that they won’t be able to do anything until they gain back the White House in 2008. And plenty of Democrats, from Illinois Sen. Barack Obama to Clinton, are auditioning to be the Democrats’ choice in 2008. The Republicans will look to retool for 2008 as well. In a climate in which politicians will be maneuvering for what will no doubt be billed as “the most important election of our lifetimes,” not much of any substance is likely to emerge from Washington. Meanwhile, the crisis in Iraq will worsen. 2007 may see the beginnings of a recession. And the numerous social crises left unattended over the last few years: the Katrina disaster, the health care crisis, the status of millions of undocumented immigrant workers in the U.S., among others, will only intensify.
It’s possible that the Democrats will pass minimum wage reform. And after twelve years of Republican rule in Congress, that might look good to a lot of people. However, the basic thrust goes in the opposite direction. The politicians have made it clear that they are planning to pay lip service to “change,” while trying to preserve as much of the status quo as they can. But for a growing number of Americans, the status quo is unacceptable. The disjunction between expectations and reality will open up a bigger political space for rebuilding an independent Left that looks to its own actions and politics, as opposed to looking to the Democrats to deliver.
A good place to begin that process will be in building the largest and most vocal participation in national demonstrations, called for January 27, to end the war in Iraq. The immigrant rights movement that forced its way onto the public stage last spring will need to redouble its efforts to win justice for the undocumented. As these movements are rebuilt, their activists can take heart. After enduring six years of marginalization and vilification by the most right-wing government in the U.S. since the 1920s, the election has shown them that the U.S. isn’t “Bush country” after all. Let’s take the opportunity to force the politicians—including those who pretend to be our “friends”—to act on our side’s agenda for a change.
Lance Selfa is on the editorial board of the ISR.