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The meaning of the mid-terms

LYNN WALSH looks at November’s US mid-term elections which, while they did not record a real ‘swing to the right’ in terms of popular sentiment, nevertheless consolidated Bush’s grip on the centres of political power.

BUSH PLUCKED A big political victory in the mid-term elections from marginal electoral gains. There was no landslide or massive ‘swing to the right’. The voting section of the electorate, only 39.3% of the voting age population, remains split down the middle. But by taking control of the Senate and increasing their majority in the House of Representatives, the Republicans have bucked the historical trend. Never in living memory has the party of the sitting president won back control of the Senate. And not since president Eisenhower in 1953-54 have the Republicans controlled the House, the Senate and the presidency for a full two-year term. The victory was snatched, moreover, in spite of the continuing downturn in the US economy and the wave of corporate business crimes.

Bush, however, successfully pushed domestic issues into the background by his ‘war-and-terrorism’ campaign. Touring 12 major cities and 15 states during the last couple of weeks before November 5, Bush made a personal appeal as a ‘war president’ for loyal support for the defense of America’s national security. At the same time, he noticeably toned down his war-mongering rhetoric, especially in the mid-West states. Republican candidates won seats on the president’s coat-tails – and Bush has harvested the political credit. Claiming a popular endorsement for the president and a mandate for the administration, the Bush regime will undoubtedly feel strengthened on its aggressive Iraq policy and will ruthlessly push its right-wing, pro-business agenda as soon as the new Congress takes over in January.

The dismal Democrats

AS AN OPPOSITION, the Democrats totally failed – despite all the ammunition to hand. Above all, they failed to offer anything to the sixty percent who see no point in voting, overwhelmingly workers and the poor. Recent government figures show that the richest fifth of the population now get half of all household income, while the poorest fifth receive only 3.5%. The number of Americans living in poverty increased by 1.3 million last year, to 32.9 million.

The Democrats also failed, however, to win votes from big sections of their traditional supporters. They avoided challenging Bush’s determination to link the September 11 attacks to ‘regime change’ in Iraq. They failed to defend democratic rights, drastically curtailed in the name of the ‘war against terrorism’. Most crucially for the election outcome, the Democratic leadership supported the White House resolution handing sweeping war powers to Bush. Dick Gephardt, the Democratic House leader, made a private deal with Bush, then helped push the measure through. While they clearly had grave doubts about Bush’s policy (from the standpoint of US capitalism’s interests) they wanted to get the war issue out of the way in order to concentrate on the economy and other domestic issues. Once they had conceded to Bush on war-and-terrorism, however, the Democrats had no basis on which to oppose the main plank of the president’s election campaign – not so much war against Iraq, which was played down, but the strengthening of national security and US military power against the threat of terrorism. Many Democratic candidates joined the ‘support the president’ campaign, effectively conceding their own claim to office.

At the same time, while trying to highlight the recession and its effects on working families, the Democrats offered no clear alternative policies on the economy. They did not even campaign against Bush’s $1.35 trillion tax cut over ten years, which will go overwhelmingly to a million super-rich Americans. In spite of deep popular anger at big-business scandals, the Democrats failed to expose the rottenness of the system – not surprising when many Democratic leaders took Enron and other corporate cash. They have not championed a state-financed health-care system, despite the fact that over 41 million people (14.6%) have no health insurance and millions more have completely inadequate health cover.

The Democrats have paid the price for the political cowardice and bankruptcy of their leaders. The once-strong Democratic Party machine has crumbled. Voters registered as Democratic supporters have declined by 18 percentage points from the 1960s peak.

While the leaders of most labour unions are still stuck like glue to the Democrats, handing them ever-bigger amounts of election cash, a growing bunch of labour leaders are turning to Republican office-holders. In New York state, for instance, several public-sector unions supported the now re-elected Republican governor, George Pataki, on the strength of short-sighted pay deals that will rebound on their members in the future.

The Republicans, on the other hand, have strengthened their political machine, especially in the South. With huge infusions of big-business cash, they have created an enormous network of fund-raisers, lobbyists, right-wing think tanks, radio and TV talk-show hosts, and grass-roots activists, who increasingly conduct door-to-door canvassing. While the overall turnout was down, the turnout in some seats targeted by the Republicans (for instance, in New Hampshire and Georgia) rose quite sharply.

The gains and losses on 5 November were not great. The Republicans gained two seats in the Senate, giving them a 51-49 majority (falling well short of the 60 seats necessary for the majority party to avoid opposition filibusters which can delay or even block legislation). Republicans gained five seats in the House, increasing their small majority. The Democrats, however, made a net gain of three in contests for state governors (where domestic issues had more influence than national security). The turnout was fractionally higher than in the 1998 mid-term elections, 39.3% compared with 37.6%. Nevertheless, district results and local exit polls reveal some new trends, especially in the small minority of races – about 40 or so – where there were real contests (because of redistricting or the intensive targeting of vulnerable incumbents). The Republicans gained from a last-minute surge of their core supporters, with a sharply increased turnout in their strongest districts. They gathered most votes from upper-middle-class and Christian right voters, especially in the outer suburbs of metropolitan areas in the South and the mid-West. These were the sections most swayed by Bush’s national security propaganda. The Republicans also polled strongly in rural areas (helped by Bush’s recent increase in farm subsidies), and took some votes from the Democrats in suburban areas. The Democrats, on the other hand, suffered from a sharp fall in the turnout from their core supporters in traditional Democratic areas. Minorities, African Americans and Latinos, especially stayed away, and the Democrats lost their usual lead among women voters.

In California, for instance, regarded as a Democratic stronghold, the turnout fell to a record low of 36% – described by the Los Angeles Times as a "mass voter boycott". The Democratic governor, Gray Davis, was returned with a reduced majority. The total number of black and Latino voters fell by over one million from 1998, while the proportion of black voters fell from 13% in 1998 to only 4%. In Florida, where the Democrats mobilised a higher than usual turnout in the 2000 election, the Democratic vote fell sharply, especially among working-class minorities, no doubt reflecting disenchantment with the Democrats’ capitulation to Bush’s constitutional coup. According to exit polls, the black turnout fell from a record 72% in 2000 to 43% in 2002. As a result Jeb Bush was comfortably returned as governor. Georgia was one of the biggest defeats for the Democrats, with the Republicans’ defeating an incumbent governor and senator and winning two redrawn House seats. While the Republicans mobilised additional votes in the outer suburbs of Atlanta and the rural south, the Democrats failed to pull out their core supporters, especially African Americans in Atlanta and the poor rural areas.

Go-ahead for corporate agenda

EVEN AFTER HIS illegitimate presidential victory in 2000, courtesy of the Supreme Court, Bush rigorously pushed his right-wing, pro-business agenda. Corporate leaders have already presented a new wish list. They want extended, permanent tax cuts for big business and the super-rich. They are pressing for Federal subsidies for corporate terrorism insurance. Oil companies are pushing to drill in the Alaskan nature reserve, and for the general relaxation of environmental protection.

Business wants new curbs on the right of workers and consumers to sue companies for mismanagement, environmental pollution, and health-and-safety violations. Also, there are currently over 51 vacancies on the federal judicial bench: if Bush now fills these with right-wing judges, with life tenure, that will have far-reaching, adverse effects on women’s rights, democratic rights, and a whole range of social issues.

Even before the new Congress opens in January, Bush is pushing through his Homeland Security Bill, which will merge 22 existing agencies into a massive security machine. Several Democratic senators have now agreed to support the Bill despite the fact that it will deprive 170,000 government workers of their civil service employment protection and trade union rights.

But there is a big question mark over how far Bush will be able to go. "Business leaders and their opponents in Washington agree that if the Republicans over-reach in their zeal to advance a pro-business agenda, they risk a strong protest", commented the New York Times (8 November).

During the election campaign, the economy and business scandals were overshadowed by war fever. But it is on the economy that Bush will be judged in the 2004 presidential election. All the signs are that US capitalism has moved into a period of prolonged stagnation and crisis, though the short-term business cycle will continue. With full control of Congress, Bush will have nobody else to blame.

The continued slide of the economy, with rising long-term unemployment and growing problems of debt, will provoke big upheavals. New York City, for instance, has a budget deficit of between $5bn and $6bn, posing the threat of massive cuts. Recent industrial action by transport workers, fire-fighters, and other City workers is an overture to coming struggles throughout the US.

During the campaign, Bush used the Taft-Hartley act to impose a 90-day ‘cooling-off’ period on the Longshoremen (dockers), who shut down all the West Coast ports. Bush’s unusual mid-term success will not protect the Republicans against a growing tide of opposition, protest movements and workers’ struggles.

Time for a new mass party

THE DEMOCRATS OFFERED no alternative to workers, minorities, and the poorer strata of US society. This is the legacy of the Clinton presidency and the domination of the right-wing Democratic Leadership Council, whose policy was to steal the Republican’s clothes on many issues. As a result, they suffered a serious defeat, as Al Gore for one publicly acknowledged. This has triggered a reaction within the Democratic party, which may strengthen the liberal, ‘populist’ wing against the openly pro-big business elements who dominated the leadership in recent years. Immediately after the elections, the Democrat’s House leader, Dick Gephardt, stepped down. The favourite for his replacement was Nancy Pelosi, who has a strong base in Democrat-dominated California.

She admitted they had utterly failed to distinguish themselves from the Republicans. Like former vice-president Al Gore, she is calling for an end to the cosying up to Bush. Pelosi, then House Democratic whip, led 126 House Democrats (against 81) in voting against Bush’s war powers on Iraq, despite Gephardt’s support for Bush. One likely rival on the right, Martin Frost of Texas, who claims the country has shifted to the right and says the Democrats should follow suit, quickly dropped out of the contest, and Pelosi was elected House minority leader by a decisive 177 to 29 vote. In the House, she will now face Tom DeLay, the new Republican majority leader. DeLay, who is from Texas and closely linked to big oil, Enron, and other corporate interests, is a key figure in the right-wing, Christian fundamentalist faction that now dominates the Republican party. DeLay’s role, together with the Republican’s Senate majority, will probably mean a much more polarised situation in Congress. How far Pelosi will move the Democrats in a ‘left’ direction remains to be seen. But unless the party makes more of an appeal to working people, especially to those who currently see no point in voting, the Democrats face an even deeper undermining of their electoral base.

The Democrats are a big-business party, through and through, though they have traditionally relied on the support of the trade unions, for money and a loyalist vote. During the Clinton presidency they moved even closer to big-business interests, and shifted to neo-liberal policies. Fundamentally, the Democrats offer no alternative for working people. Their support for social reform and workers’ rights is at best half-hearted.

They have no solutions to the growing crisis of US capitalism. Ultimately, they are tied to their big business masters, who will rein them in if they bend too much to pressure from the labour movement or the party’s populist wing. In times of growing economic and social crisis, however, it cannot be ruled out that the Democrats, or sections of the Democrats, will swing in a populist direction making a demagogic appeal to the working class, minorities, etc. Gore, in fact, briefly turned to populist rhetoric in the closing stages of the 2000 presidential campaign, boosting his support, though too late to change the result.

The time is long overdue for a party to provide political representation for working people, to mobilise workers, women, minorities, and young people in struggles to defend their interests and change society. The potential exists.

While voter registration has generally fallen, the number of voters registering as ‘third party’ supporters or ‘independents’ has increased eight-fold since the 1960s. More than a third of young African-Americans, traditionally strong Democrat supporters, now register as ‘independent’.

The small (currently shrinking) Labor Party, founded in 1996 with the support of a handful of unions, has not got off the ground. Union leaders vetoed electoral campaigning, which is a vital tool for building a new mass party.

Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign on a Green Party ticket, despite its serious political shortcoming, showed the potential for a new party on the left. Nader, a radical populist, polled 2.7 million votes, and would have got more had not the race been so close (leading many Nader sympathisers to vote Democrat to keep out the Republicans). Currently, some Green candidates are increasing their votes (for example, in Minnesota).

A political catalyst is needed to bring together the forces for a new mass party – labour union and community activists, minority and environmental campaigners, anti-war activists and wider layers who are sick of the corrupt monopoly of the big-business duo, the Republicans and Democrats. Events in the next few years will unavoidably bring this urgent task to the forefront of US politics. The task of activists now is to prepare the way through mobilising the broadest possible movements of workers, minorities, youth and students against the aggressive policies of US imperialism internationally and the assault at home on living standards and rights.

Big bucks buy votes

MILLIONS OF big-business dollars were used by both major parties to campaign for votes. Both represent big business. The Republicans, however, pushing more aggressive pro-business policies, heavily outspent the Democrats in these elections, by $527.4 million to $343.7 million.

Bush was credited with personally raising $141 million for his party. Cash was targeted on key marginal states, particularly through intensive television advertising. More than 95% of House of Representative races and 75% of Senate races were won by the candidate who spent most money, according to the Centre For Responsive Politics. (One candidate who won despite being outspent was Bernie Sanders, a reformist social democrat who was returned to the House as an independent for Vermont.)

At the same time, so-called ‘special interest groups’ such as the pharmaceutical companies and the National Rifle Association, spent millions on TV campaigns that, while not openly supporting particular candidates, opposed state funding for prescription drugs and gun control.

Other corporate interests campaigned for the privatisation of social security, the US state pension scheme. Altogether, over $1bn was spent on TV advertising during this campaign. In the state of Oregon alone (population 3.3 million), the pharmaceutical industry spent $2 million to defeat a ballot initiative (a referendum) proposing a comprehensive government-run health system similar to Canada’s. Corporate interests outspent the health care campaign by fifty to one, defeating it by 79% to 21%, despite the fact that 13% of the state’s population have no health insurance and many more have very inadequate cover.

This year the Republicans and Democrats smashed all records in raising over $500 million in ‘soft’ money, that is unregulated campaign finance that exploits loopholes in earlier laws supposedly intended to limit the influence of ‘special interest groups’ over the parties. From the morning after election day 2002, ‘soft money’ donations are supposed to be illegal under new legislation passed last year, the so-called McCain-Feingold law. Both parties, however, have been busy opening up new loopholes.

They have had plenty of help from the Federal Election Commission (FEC), appointed by political leaders in Congress, which has already re-interpreted the rules in favour of big-business donations. "The chief enabler who lets this seamy game continue", comments the USA Today (7 November), "is the very agency charged with enforcing the law. Instead of aggressively blocking end runs around the law, the Federal Election Commission has led the way to keep special-interest millions flowing".


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