WHAT WE THINK
November 8, 2002 | Page 3
REPUBLICANS WERE as smug as could be about their victory in this week's midterm elections. The Republicans picked up enough seats in the Senate to overcome the Democrats' one-vote edge, held onto their slender majority in the House of Representatives and won several big battles among the governor's races. Now, party officials and pundits are talking about the results as an endorsement of the Bush presidency--and a mandate for pushing ahead with a right-wing agenda.
What happened? Every opinion poll going into the election showed that so-called "Democratic issues"--the stagnating economy, Social Security, the health care crisis--topped the list of voters' concerns. Yet Democrats still lost.
One standard explanation from Democrats is that Republicans succeeded in deflecting attention from the slumping economy by making the war on Iraq the central political issue of the past several months. That's how Democratic leaders justified a "yes" vote on the White House's demand for a congressional resolution authorizing military action--to take the issue "out of play."
But as SW went to press, only one Democrat who defied the leadership and voted against the war drive had lost a race on Election Day. And by ducking a fight, the Democrats gave up an opportunity to give supporters something to vote for--by standing up to Bush on a question where growing numbers of people were expressing grave doubts.
Meanwhile, on the issue they supposedly did want to talk about--the economy--the Democrats had nothing to offer. Incredibly, this allowed Republicans to get away with claiming to have a "plan" to help ordinary people--while Democrats only made criticisms.
A real challenge to Bush's economic program would have meant attacking the White House's $1.35 trillion tax cut giveaway to the richest Americans passed last year. "The way to nationalize an election and make it a referendum on the Bush economy was to talk about the billion-pound elephant in the room--the Bush tax boon for the wealthy," Democratic political consultant Chris Lehane told the New York Times last week. "You can't talk about the economy with any credibility without addressing the issue. It would have been an organizing principle for a consistent message, and it would have broken through the cacophony of D.C.-speak."
Problem: the Bush tax cut passed through Congress with Democrats providing the margin of victory. As a result, not a single figure in the Democratic Party mainstream had the guts to demand that the tax cuts be repealed. And as Democrats found out on Election Night, you can't beat something with nothing.
Election 2002 will give Republicans a majority in both houses of Congress--to add to their control over the White House and the federal judiciary. That's a frightening prospect.
The first item of business in the new GOP-controlled Senate will be legislation to create a Department of Homeland Security, which strips tens of thousands of government workers of their union and civil service rights. And the Republicans may try to get away with pet projects that Democrats had blocked--like a ban on late-term abortions misnamed "partial-birth abortions" by the anti-choice bigots.
But when Democrats claim that they have no power to stop Bush, it will be important to remember that Republicans controlled both houses of Congress in the opening months of the Bush administration--and the Democrats still provided the White House with its margin of victory on every important vote, from John Ashcroft's confirmation as attorney general to the tax cut giveaway.
This raises an important point. For all the talk about what Republican control over "all three branches of government" will mean, the fact is that "divided" government wasn't much different. Control of Congress was never "divided" between two real political alternatives--but between two parties that both make serving Corporate America their top priority, whatever their tactical differences.
The key to stopping the Bush gang from pushing ahead with an agenda of war, attacks on workers and giveaways to the rich will be the same as it was before November 5--mobilizing grassroots opposition to stop them.
If the Bush gang thinks that they have a mandate, they're wrong. The Republicans only made the gains that they did by camouflaging their most unpopular positions--and Democrats let them get away with it.
When the mask comes off, the Bush gang's program will be exposed for the vicious right-wing attack that it is. And that will only fuel bitterness among tens of millions of working people. We need to organize that anger into an active opposition to the Bush gang's right-wing attack.