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WHAT WE THINK
One year after re-election triumph, White House crisis deepens
What happened to "Bush country"?

November 18, 2005 | Page 3

ONE YEAR ago, you could pick up any newspaper, and read the exact same words about the 2004 election, repeated by hundreds of politicians and pundits: We live in Bush country. The most important issue for voters is moral values. People just seem to trust Republicans. George Bush succeeded in making his case for the war in Iraq. Karl Rove is a genius.

Not anymore. Today, the occupation of Iraq--the centerpiece of the Bush presidency--lurches from one crisis to the next. Every prewar justification for invasion has collapsed into dust. The Hurricane Katrina disaster exposed the Bush administration as incompetent at best, and criminally negligent at worst, in saving residents of a major American city.

Then there's the list of Republican politicians and politically connected hacks who may yet go to jail as a result of a string of scandals: Tom Delay, Bill Frist, Randy "Duke" Cunningham, Jack Abramoff--and, of course, the White House wizard himself, Karl Rove, and his hobbled sidekick, Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

As badly as the Democrats did one year ago, the 2005 elections--though few and far between, since under the warped U.S. system, this is an "off" year for democracy--were similarly devoid of good news for the Republicans. Republican candidates got beat by solid margins in the two governor's elections that were supposed to be close.

Even more telling, California's governator Arnold Schwarzenegger was crushed in a special referendum election he called himself. All four of the ballot measures he backed went down to defeat. Following the vote, a humbled Schwarzenegger caved in his yearlong battle against the California Nurses Association (CNA), allowing a law that requires nurse-to-patient ratios to be implemented--a surrender to the CNA, which dogged the governator at every step, and started the ball rolling against him.

By contrast, the Bush administration is responding to its crisis in the only way it knows how--plunging full steam ahead and denouncing anyone who dares to criticize them as betraying the troops.

But this time, even the fawning mainstream media weren't fooled by the smoke and mirrors into forgetting that Bush's support is in freefall. The latest record low in his approval rating was 36 percent in a Newsweek poll. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey a few days earlier asked people which party they wanted to control Congress after the 2006 election. The Democrats came out ahead by a 48-to-37 percent margin--the largest gap since pollsters began asking the question in 1994.

No wonder fissures are emerging within the Republican Party. These showed up most obviously when the Republican House leadership--previously known for its iron discipline in whipping up votes on any issue the administration asked for--couldn't get a budget bill passed, despite $54 billion in cuts that fall almost entirely on the party's favorite victims: the poor, the elderly and the most vulnerable.

GOP leaders had to give up on two notorious anti-environment provisions that would have opened up oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off the coast of the continental U.S., and a few of the more mean-spirited cutbacks in the food stamp program--but they still didn't have a majority on board as Socialist Worker went to press.

If there's a single bright spot for Bush and the Republicans, it's the performance of their so-called "opposition" in Washington. Despite all the opportunities to take the initiative against Republican proposals--from Bush's anti-choice Supreme Court justices, to the cruel budget cutbacks, to the Iraq occupation--the Democrats have kept their heads down.

Worse, they've joined in the attack--as when five Senate Democrats provided the margin of victory for an amendment to a military spending bill that would overturn a Supreme Court decision giving detainees at the U.S. government's Guantánamo Bay prison camp the right to challenge their captivity in court.

The vote came just a few days after the Senate embarrassed the administration by passing a bill that Dick Cheney personally lobbied against--a ban on the use of torture against "war on terror" detainees, sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). But conservative Democrats--among them, the party's 2000 vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman--helped the White House erase that setback.

The Democrats hope Bush's crisis will last to the 2006 congressional elections, giving them a chance to win back control of the Senate or House or both. But in classic fashion, Democratic leaders managed to draw all the wrong conclusions from their election victories this year.

The big stars in the aftermath of Election Day weren't the California nurses, but Virginia's outgoing Gov. Mark Warner--who is being positioned to be the next "Bill Clinton," a Southern Democrat who appeals to conservative "swing voters"--and the man who will replace him, the current Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine.

In particular, the pundits credited Kaine's victory with the fact that he promoted his Catholicism to fend off a nasty attack by his Republican opponent who targeted Kaine's personal opposition to the death penalty. Already, various Democrats have declared that they plan to copy Kaine and talk more about religion.

The real story of what happened in Virginia is different. Kaine's response on the death penalty--defending his "personal" opposition, while promising that he would uphold Virginia's capital punishment laws and keep the execution machine running--smacked of all the mealy-mouthed, "triangulated" positions that John Kerry served up last year.

The real reason the Republicans' pro-death penalty attack didn't stick wasn't this response, but a political shift on the issue of capital punishment. Because the death penalty system has been exposed as unjust in so many ways--thanks in important ways to the efforts of anti-death penalty activists--capital punishment is no longer the hot-button "wedge issue" it once was for conservative politicians to guarantee an election victory.

Not for the first time, the professional media is exaggerating the importance of a political p.r. strategy, while downplaying the real story--political shifts going on outside official politics.

Despite the Democrats' timidity, the anger at the Bush administration and the right-wing agenda of the Washington establishment is finding expression in all sorts of ways.

The most important issue is the war--because Bush has made it the centerpiece of his presidency. Recent polls show that 59 percent of people think the invasion was a mistake, and even greater numbers want some or all U.S. troops withdrawn immediately.

The antiwar movement has seen a sharp revival in activity, starting with Cindy Sheehan's vigil outside Bush's vacation ranch, and continuing into the fall with both the September 24 national antiwar demonstrations, and a revitalized student movement against military recruiters on campus.

The counter-recruitment struggle is having an impact--from disrupting the military's presence on campus and contributing to the Pentagon's failure to meet its recruiting goals, to the success of the College Not Combat ballot measure in San Francisco earlier this month.

Meanwhile, people concerned with opposing racism and defending civil rights are starting to rally around another important struggle--to save California death row prisoner Stan Tookie Williams from the death chamber. The race to execute this former gang leader-turned-peacemaker shows everything that's racist, anti-poor and irrational about the death penalty, the criminal injustice system and U.S. society in general.

The Bush administration is on the ropes, and it's hard to see how it can bounce back. But the lesson of history is that our rulers can rebound from any crisis--even if it means turning to their B-team, the Democrats, when the Republicans lose credibility--if there is no active grassroots opposition to stop them.

Such an opposition has to be built--one struggle at a time. But the potential for that opposition to emerge is all around us today. We have to push outward in building the fights that can challenge the ruling class' right-wing agenda. And in the process, we have to knit together a new left that can be at the core of the struggles of the future.

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