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Did voters endorse George W. Bush and the Republicans?
What happened in the election?

November 15, 2002 | Page 8

Lance Selfa explains the real meaning of Election 2002.

IN THE week after the Democrats lost control of the Senate to the Republicans, commentators were quick to declare that Election 2002 was an endorsement of the Bush presidency. And gloating Republicans claimed a "mandate" to push through a right-wing program of war, tax cuts for the rich and packing the federal bench with conservative judges.

In all the post-election spin, it was easy to forget that the media "conventional wisdom" before the vote was that the election would be "too close to call"--or that only three months ago, Bush's popularity was falling fast, with corporate scandals threatening to engulf both him and Dick Cheney.

What happened? No one can deny that Bush won the day with nonstop campaigning on the public dime in the final days of the election. That's how Bush pumped up his "base" of conservative voters and got them to go to the polls. A Gallup Poll on the eve of the election captured this late surge of Republican voters.

Yet only six weeks before the election--in the midst of saturation coverage of September 11 anniversary events--Gallup showed 50 percent of likely voters planning to vote Democratic, compared to 46 percent planning to vote Republican.

The shift toward the Republicans took place in the intervening weeks. For one thing, the Democrats capitulated to Bush's demand for a congressional resolution authorizing war with Iraq. But this was only the latest example of Democrats rolling over for Bush--all of which gave their "base" of Blacks, union members and working people little reason to vote.

The Democratic strategy followed from two assumptions. Party leaders argued that they couldn't oppose a popular president on Iraq. But once they "inoculated" themselves by going along with Bush on the war drive, they could shift the discussion back to where they wanted to fight the election--on the deteriorating economy and domestic issues.

The first assumption was plain wrong. In fact, Sens. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) and Jean Carnahan (D-Mo.) not only voted for the Iraq war, but supported Bush's positions 70 percent of the time, including last year's tax-cut giveaway to the rich. But Bush campaigned against them anyway, and they both lost.

Meanwhile, only one Democrat who voted against the war lost on Election Night. Indeed, Sen. Paul Wellstone's (D-Minn.) vote against the war seemed to boost his chances to win reelection in Minnesota--before he died in an October 25 plane crash.

The second assumption of Democratic leaders presumed that the party had something to say about the economy. Consider the economic conditions that faced Bush and the Republicans in the election. The stock market has dropped by 20 percent since Bush's installation as president. Some 1.5 million jobs have disappeared in the same time, with the official unemployment increasing from 4.2 percent to 5.7 percent. The official rate of corporate profits is the lowest it has been in 50 years, except for 1980 and 1982.

The statistics could go on, but the point is obvious, as American Prospect editor Harold Meyerson underlined: "In a nation where economic insecurity is routine; where anxiety over jobs, retirement and health coverage is widespread; the failure of the Democrats to connect on any of these causes is astonishing."

No high-level Democrat would criticize Bush's giveaways for the rich or advance any kind of real proposal to deal with the economic slowdown. Even the Democrats' most loyal voters--union members--agreed that the Republicans had an economic plan, while the Democrats did not, according to an AFL-CIO election night poll.

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AFTER FUMBLING the questions of the war and the economy, it should be no surprise that voter turnout in many Democratic strongholds plunged. In Georgia, Florida and Maryland, Black voters--who usually vote overwhelmingly Democratic--stayed home.

But it also should be said that while the Republicans' win was decisive, it was hardly overwhelming. If 300,000 of the more than 75 million votes cast shifted from Republican to Democrat, the Democrats would have won both houses of Congress. And a swing of only about 34,000 votes would have kept the Senate in Democratic hands.

Also, although voter turnout increased from 37 percent of the voting age population in the 1998 midterm elections to 39 percent last week, that's still pathetic. In an election in which most voters found little to choose from among any of the candidates--despite 24-hour-a-day political ads saturating TV and radio--only a minority of voters went to the polls. Thus, the election result represents the views of, at most, about one in five voting-age adults.

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DOES BUSH now have a mandate to remake the government along hard-right lines? Even conservative columnist--and Bush cousin--John Ellis cautioned the GOP: "The 2002 result is a strong vote of confidence for the Bush administration. It is not a mandate. The great danger that now looms for the GOP is that it will mistake the vote of confidence for a mandate."

First, the programs that the Republicans actually want to push through are unlike any that they talked about during the election. They campaigned as opponents of privatization of Social Security and supporters of adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. If they press for what they really stand for--privatization of both of these popular programs--they will immediately ignite a backlash.

Second, Republicans will be under pressure from the hard core of religious conservatives to pack the courts with far-right judges who support outlawing abortion, among other reactionary policies. These payoffs to the Christian Right will no doubt stoke opposition among the broad population that doesn't support the GOP's narrow agenda.

Finally, now that they control the entire federal government, the Republicans can't blame their failures on the Democrats or Bill Clinton. If the economy continues to tank or the war in Iraq drags on, they will get the blame.

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IT'S WORTH remembering what happened the last time that the Republicans seized Congress and proclaimed a "mandate"--after their huge sweep in the 1994 election. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) proclaimed a "Republican Revolution" and vowed to implement the "Contract with America," a laundry list of conservative policy positions.

But when the Republicans started to push through their programs--and then closed down the federal government to force Bill Clinton to accept them--the "revolution" fell apart. In 1995, the media wondered if Clinton was still "relevant" to American politics. In 1996, he cruised to re-election.

No one should count on Bush and his minions being as foolish as Gingrich. And even more important, no one should count on the Democrats to put up a fight as the Republicans grind away at their agenda.

We can only count on ourselves--to organize and protest around the issues that matter to the majority of people, from the war in Iraq to labor struggles. If unions, community groups and civil rights and women's organizations lead the way, the politicians will follow. This happened in 1995, when protests against Gingrich and his henchman helped to turn the tide against him.

Abortion hasn't been a major issue in national politics for more than a decade. But in 1989, when the Supreme Court looked as if it might overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, almost 1 million people demonstrated in Washington for women's right to choose. The Supreme Court upheld Roe, and several justices later conceded that popular pressure influenced their decisions.

These are the kinds of struggles that will need to be built over the coming months.

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