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ISR Issue 52, March–April 2007

The new face of U.S. politics

LANCE SELFA examines the gap between growing expectations and what the Democrats can really deliver

THE CONGRESSIONAL election in November 2006 was a vote of “no-confidence” in the Bush administration, especially its handling of the crisis in Iraq. Eager to deny that obvious conclusion, many pundits and Bush supporters proposed that Democrats only won the election because they adopted conservative positions on social issues and tread lightly on the question of the war. But if the Democrats wanted to tread lightly, the electorate didn’t. And the new Democratic leaders in Congress have been forced to respond.

If anything, the period since the November election has only served to heighten the increasing loss of confidence in the Bush administration, on the part not only of the population, but also of large sections of the establishment itself. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found Bush’s popularity dropping to truly Nixonian levels (below 30 percent). Near two-to-one majorities in most national surveys tell pollsters they would like to see the Democrats or Congress take the lead on Iraq and domestic policies. Perhaps most damning of all was a recent Newsweek poll that found 58 percent of Americans surveyed wished the Bush administration were over. Many more indications of popular discontent with the Bush administration could be cited.

This new reality has also made the Democrats more assertive than appeared to be the case even a few months ago. While Democrats are certainly not putting forward genuine antiwar positions, they have become bolder in criticizing Bush and the war. They are exercising their new congressional subpoena powers to hold hearings that have, and will continue, to expose the shameless cronyism, corruption, and ineptitude of the Bush administration and its many disasters, from Iraq to its manipulation of scientific research.

The Democrats’ current strategy is to unite against the troop “surge” in Iraq by offering non-binding resolutions condemning it as an escalation. Meanwhile, they continue to vote to support the war at its current level while proposing various scenarios for troop redeployment in the future. At this point, only a few liberals have tabled bills asserting Congress’s right to cut off funds for the Iraq adventure. While these fund cut offs will give many rank-and-file liberals hope that their “vote to end the war” will succeed, Democratic leaders, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to foot-in-mouth Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Joe Biden (D-Del.) have been far more cautious—and in Biden’s case, dismissive—of these proposals. All of this positioning shows that the Democrats want to take advantage of the public mood of opposition to the war, while not taking the fall for defeat in Iraq. For this reason, most leading Democrats have embraced the recommendations of the establishment-dominated Iraq Study Group as their road map out of the Iraq debacle.

On the other side of the aisle, the Republicans and conservatives have yet to recover from the defeat in November. Developments since the November election have accelerated disintegration in GOP ranks. This is symbolized most prominently by the willingness of leading GOP conservatives, like Senator John Warner (R-Va.), to offer their own resolutions condemning Bush’s troop “surge” in Iraq. The Democratic “100 hours” program attracted substantial GOP support. And the presidential candidate seeking to be seen as a successor to President Bush, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), has seen his support decline. McCain even polls behind Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008 presidential polls, something that would have been considered unthinkable just a year ago.

But even outside the machinations in Washington, other pieces of the conservative conventional wisdom of the last generation are under challenge. Due to court decisions challenging lethal injection as a method of execution, there is now a de facto moratorium on the death penalty in some of the largest death rows in the country (California and Florida, for example). The newly elected governor of Maryland has said he would sign a bill abolishing the death penalty if it reaches his desk. Overwhelming support for minimum wage referenda and the fact that most Americans continue to view the economy warily despite “objective” indicators of a strong economy (Wall Street records, strong GNP growth, low unemployment) show that even the dominance of neoliberal ideology has eroded since its heyday in the “there is no alternative” 1990s.

Democratic assertiveness reflects more than just politicians holding their fingers to the political winds. The Democrats, and some Republicans, are providing a vehicle through which sections of the ruling class (embodied in the Iraq Study Group) are expressing their vote of no confidence in the Bush administration and its failure in Iraq. There are many indications of this: an increased willingness of the media to expose Bush’s lies; the votes against the troop surge in Congress; open admissions from generals and admirals that the Bush plan will not work. But it is crucial to recognize that this opposition to Bush represents the ruling class’s concern with saving, rather than burying, the U.S. imperial project. These forces are worried that continued failure in Iraq will weaken the U.S. military overall. They fear that Bush’s unilateralism and clumsiness has wrought a political cost in the “soft power” of the U.S. (i.e., its ideological, political, and cultural influence) across the world. So while leading Democrats are bashing Bush’s escalation in Iraq, they remain hawkish in their criticisms of Iran, unshaken in their support for Israel’s most outrageous atrocities, and quietly supportive of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ calls to increase the size of the armed forces by almost 100,000. This is not to mention that leading liberals and Democrats are the ones clamoring for “humanitarian intervention” in the Darfur region of Sudan.

The problem for the Democrats is that they can only play the role of virtual opposition for so long. In the effort to gain the broadest anti-surge resolution they could, they essentially adopted Warner’s position, which includes a number of key concessions to Bush and the war, as their own. And Republicans still prevented them (as the ISR went to press) from voting on that watered-down resolution in the Senate. If the latest Bush gambit in Iraq has the outcome most experts are predicting (failure), will they actually move to take decisive action to end the debacle? So far, they have been able to provide a sounding board for “responsible” exit strategies and symbolic opposition to the war. Their voting base and much of the public is giving them the benefit of the doubt now. But that honeymoon will run out. Any serious step they take in Iraq will implicate them in the war. As much as they like to hang responsibility for the Iraq War around Bush’s neck, Iraq is their war too. By combining more rigorous public criticism of the war with (toothless) proposals for maintaining the status quo, the Democrats are in danger of both raising and dashing popular expectations at the same time.

Already, at least eight leading Democrats (Vilsack, Kucinich, Dodd, Edwards, Richardson, Biden, Obama, an Clinton) have either announced that they are running for president or have given strong indications that they are planning to do so. More are expected to announce for 2008, even though the first primaries are a year away. No doubt many of these candidates won’t even make it to the first primary, but it is noteworthy that all of them are running as critics/opponents of Bush’s Iraq policies. Some are leading on more domestic issues, such as Edwards on poverty and Katrina. But the bottom line for each is some sort of pledge to wind down the war in Iraq—most likely through one or another scheme for “redeployment” of U.S. forces in the region. Even Clinton, the most hawkish of the leading contenders, has tried to inoculate herself from her prowar record with admissions that she wouldn’t have voted for the war “knowing what she knows now.” The fact that John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race wouldn’t make such an admission not only showed that he is a political numbskull, but also (and more importantly) shows that much of the ruling class considers the Iraq War a lost cause. It is now “safe” for mainstream politicians to be “antiwar”—albeit in the most narrow, technical sense. The way in which Democratic criticism of the war is couched—that Iraqis must “show results,” that, in the words of one freshman Democrat in Congress, the U.S. cannot be “refereeing a civil war”—shows the narrow limits of the argument. None of them is arguing that the U.S. should get out of Iraq because it has no right to be there, and because it has destroyed the country and fuelled sectarian violence.

The growing roster of candidates shows that there is a growing “market” for mainstream opponents to Bush and the GOP, with ruling-class political investors willing to finance their “initial public offerings.”

An election campaign period, when different politicians are competing for support from different parts of the Democratic base, can lead to a bidding up of rhetoric. This was evident in the class-war rhetoric of the Democratic response to Bush’s State of the Union address from newly elected Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) and in Obama’s call to establish a national health care system within six years. While these rhetorical stances are reflective of the new political climate, we have to remember that they come from the mouths of politicians who are still beholden to the special interests they criticize in their stump speeches. Rep. Barney Frank’s (D-Mass.) offer of a “grand bargain” to big business means that Democrats will try to tailor reforms for workers to those that can be seen as “business friendly”: a hike in the minimum wage in exchange for tax breaks to small business, for example; or health care proposals that offer the uninsured limited, pricey plans while relieving employers of health care costs. Democratic congressional leaders have already responded to pressure from the oil industry to cut industry subsidies from the $32 billion suggested by environmental, labor, and consumer groups to about $5 billion. This left the liberal lobbies grumbling, but happy that they have a “seat at the table” in the Democratic Congress. This sort of glass half-empty/glass half-full position on Democratic politicking with business may appease Beltway lobbyists, but ordinary people looking for real change—such as national health care reform, a change to the No Child Left Behind law, or repeal of the Bush tax cuts for the rich—are not likely to be impressed. Too much timidity and triangulation in the face of demands for change will validate charges that Democrats are no better than Republicans.

Liberal groups in the Democratic base are not strong enough at the present time to demand more than a seat at the table. As recent Labor Department figures showed, organized labor’s long decline continues, with now only 12 percent of workers, and only 7 percent of private-sector workers, organized in unions. Other liberal organizations, from the National Organization for Women to the Human Rights Campaign, are little more than Beltway lobbying groups with scant participation from their memberships. As the presidential campaigns and the 2008 congressional elections develop over the next two years, many of these organizations will be sucked into one or another campaign. Voices urging that Democratic constituencies temper their demands for the sake of enlarging the Democratic majority or defending seats in conservative districts will exert a dampening effect on activism.

The impact of this kind of “lesser-evilism” is already spreading through the immigrant rights movement. Every week, it seems, a new national coalition aimed at winning an immigration reform bill and/or preparing immigrants for the “path to citizenship” that such a reform will bring announces itself. These groups clearly see the Democratic Congress as providing them the opening to pass immigration reform that the GOP-led Congress didn’t provide. This will empower the more conservative groups in the broader immigrant rights movement (groups like the National Council of La Raza, League of United Latin American Citizens, the Service Employees International Union, etc.), who now see the immigration debate shifting onto their “turf”—the Washington back rooms—and away from the streets and communities, where more localized, grassroots groups had more sway. This new development raises the possibility of the passage of an immigration reform law favored by the Bush administration, big business, and Democratic leaders in Congress. It would include some terrible provisions, such as a guest-worker program combined with tougher measures against undocumented workers. Against this coalition of interest groups, the collection of grassroots organizations that drove the huge demonstrations of spring 2006 is fragmented and squabbling internally. Even many of the leaders of these grassroots organizations remain in an uncertain state, waiting to see what the Democrats offer before they organize to demand full legalization and no new Bracero Program.

This doesn’t mean that the next two years will recreate the dreary political climate that surrounded the 2004 presidential election. For the U.S. ruling class, there is no good solution to the Iraq crisis. As a result, the Iraq crisis has injected an element of volatility and unpredictability into a previously stagnant mainstream political environment. The frame of reference of mainstream debate may shift in unpredictable ways, and even very mainstream politicians could announce support for what today are considered “radical” positions (such as the demand for immediate withdrawal from Iraq). Even on the question of immigration, there is no guarantee that the mainstream liberal groups, working with the Democrats, can deliver an acceptable reform bill. Diehards on the Right will try to sink anything that doesn’t stress “border security” or ban a “path to citizenship.” And it is far from clear that the rank-and-file of the movement will accept the kind of sellout that the liberal groups are preparing. Last year’s May Day mobilizations had an impact in rendering unacceptable both the anti-immigrant Sensenbrenner bill and its more moderate alternative, the Hagel-Martinez bill. This year’s May 1 mobilization—although today being promoted mainly by fragments of last year’s movement—might catch fire, especially if it links itself to pressing issues, such as opposition to Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and deportations.

As the gap between the expectations embodied in the November 2006 elections clashes with the reality of the continuation of a grinding and demoralizing war, political differences over the way forward will grow inside movements. In the antiwar movement, for example, we see two developments pulling in the opposite direction. On the one hand, there is a heightened confidence among the more moderate wings of the movement in their strategy focusing on “voting for peace” and lobbying to end the war. To these forces, the January 29 mass lobby day against the war in Congress (where 1,200+ turned out) was a tremendous success. On the other hand, we see the beginnings of a more radical movement, especially among active duty soldiers (for example the Lt. Watada case, the “Appeal for Redress” petition, and the beginnings of a GI coffeehouse movement).
One could argue that developments in the antiwar movement like these have happened before. But these happened largely in a climate of continued backing of the war in the ruling establishment, with a rubber-stamp GOP Congress, and the appearance of milestones like the Iraqi elections that gave the illusion of progress in Iraq. Today, all of these factors have changed, and they account for the difference in the mood, prospects, and politics that the movement faces today. These are indications that a sea change has taken place in U.S. politics.

Lance Selfa, a member of the ISR editorial board, is currently working on a book about the Democratic Party.
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