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Why the "party of the people" signed a blank check for war
Will the Democrats ever fight?

October 18, 2002 | Page 8

ALAN MAASS looks at the Democrats' "opposition" to Bush.

SO THAT was the best the Democrats in Congress could do to oppose Bush's war on Iraq? After a couple days of debate last week--interspersed with solemn press conferences to talk about their soul-searching--half of the Democrats in Congress voted for a resolution that gives George W. Bush a blank check for a new war on Iraq.

In the House, the head Democrat, Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), worked with Republicans to come up with the language of the resolution authorizing military action. Leading Senate Democrats briefly threatened to hold up passage for a longer debate--but crumbled in short order.

Senate Majority Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) set the tone of surrender with his weasel-worded explanation that it was "important for America to speak with one voice. It is neither a Democratic resolution nor a Republican resolution."

Likewise, liberal darling Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) claimed that her vote in favor of the war resolution was "the hardest decision I've ever had to make, but I cast it with conviction."

None of this jabber changes the fact that the Bush gang got everything they wanted. Despite vague language about exhausting "all diplomatic means," Bush is basically free to use military power against Iraq unilaterally--and now with the authority of Congress.

You'd never know from the wide margin of support in Congress that opinion polls show a significant minority of people are opposed to a new war under any circumstances--and a majority are against unilateral action.

A few leading Democrats--most prominently, Al Gore and Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.)--responded to these growing doubts by criticizing the administration. After the resolution passed, Byrd even called on opponents of war to "turn their attention to the President of the United States" and keep up the pressure.

Even mild criticisms of the White House are a breath of fresh air these days--and they gave genuine opponents of the war on Iraq more confidence to speak out. But if you listen to the supposed "antiwar" Democrats, their disagreements are tactical. They differ with Bush not over whether the U.S. should be waging war on Iraq, but how--whether Washington would be better off relying on the current policy of murderous economic sanctions and military "containment," rather than an invasion and "regime change."

The truth is that George Bush and Ted Kennedy agree about more than they disagree--because they both belong to ruling-class parties that uphold U.S. imperial power.

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THE DEMOCRATS have a reputation of being the party of "doves" in Washington. In part, this is because they aren't Republicans. Anyone would sound "peaceful" compared to the warmongering rhetoric regularly used by Republicans.

But many people give the Democrats credit for being against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and '70s--the liberals who stood up to the Pentagon generals and right-wing politicians who sent U.S. soldiers to die in a pointless war.

This is definitely giving credit where credit isn't due. Democratic Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson got the U.S. involved in Vietnam in the early and mid-1960s. The vast majority of national Democratic politicians only came to support U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam much later, after years of pressure by activists had won over a growing antiwar opposition--and forced even the U.S. ruling establishment to begin to question the war.

In other words, the Democrats responded to pressure from below in opposing Vietnam. The same history lies behind other parts of the Democrats' reputation for liberal accomplishments.

For example, Kennedy and Johnson are also remembered as champions of the African American struggle for civil rights. In reality, Kennedy did his best to ignore the civil rights movement in the U.S. South--so as not to upset the Southern Democrats who presided over Jim Crow segregation.

It was only after the Black struggle grew to explosive proportions that Johnson--a southern Democrat himself with a long record of opposing civil rights--pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the two key pieces of 1960s civil rights legislation.

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THE DEMOCRATS have long exploited their association with important social reforms to pose as the "party of the people." But behind the rhetoric, the Democrats are every bit as much a party of big business as the more open servants of Corporate America in the Republican Party.

The evidence? Follow the money. Republicans have always done better at raking in the corporate cash, but the Democrats do pretty well. In fact, the biggest names in Corporate America bet on both horses. Among the companies that contributed more than $1 million in soft money to both the Republicans and the Democrats in the past 10 years were Archer Daniels Midland, ARCO Coal/Chemical, AT&T, Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco.

These corporate contributors have a huge influence in Washington--because Washington politics is about money. To run for office today, you either need to be rich--in which case you're likely to be conservative already--or have big donors.

The Democrats do get large contributions from unions. But contributions from labor pale in comparison to corporate cash. During the 1998 election campaign, for example, business gave 63 percent of the donations, compared to less than 3 percent from unions.

Big business doesn't give away that money for the hell of it. They expect something in return--and they get it. Look at the bankruptcy "reform" legislation under consideration in Congress today--a proposal written by banks and credit card companies that will make it all but impossible for working people to get out from under overwhelming debts. And promoting the proposal are not only Republicans, but prominent Democrats like Tom Daschle.

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IN REALITY, both Republicans and Democrats regularly do the bidding of the business backers that pump money into their campaigns. And when it comes to carrying out the corporate agenda, Washington doesn't stop at the border. Part of the job is to look after U.S. corporate interests overseas.

Sometimes, that means promoting U.S. economic power by throwing Washington's weight around in the World Trade Organization or the World Bank. But when this don't work, there's always the Pentagon war machine.

Democrats have never shrunk from using U.S. power. During the 1990s, for example, the Clinton White House presided over the spread of Washington's neoliberal economic agenda with U.S. corporations benefiting at the expense of the world's poor. Likewise, Clinton was ready and willing to commit U.S. troops around the globe--ordering as many interventions as the preceding three presidents combined.

Of course, Republicans and Democrats aren't exactly alike. On any given issue, most Republicans are usually a little further to the right than most Democrats. But the differences between the two parties are smaller than the fundamental similarities that unite them. This underlines the importance of grassroots organizing--to put pressure on all the politicians in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike.

We shouldn't ignore the Democrats when some of them make antiwar statements. When Ted Kennedy uses the phrase "imperialism" to describe Bush's war plan, this is both a response to growing pressure from ordinary people--and an opportunity for us to talk to a wider audience that may have gained the confidence to speak up because the issue has been raised in the mainstream.

But struggle has always been the most important factor in winning real change--not putting our faith in a politician to change the system for us. We won't stop the Bush war drive by electing Democrats to Congress--only by building the struggle against a political system that serves the rich first.

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