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Why Election 2006 marks a turning point in U.S. politics
End of the Republican era

November 10, 2006 | Page 6

ALAN MAASS looks at the collapse of the Republican Party juggernaut--and whether the Democrats represent a real alternative to the Bush agenda.

"LET ME put it to you this way," a smirking George Bush said at a press conference two days after his reelection in 2004. "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it."

Two years later, and Bush's political piggy bank is empty--his "capital" estimated last week by conservative organizer and Bush supporter Paul Weyrich at "zero."

By the end of Election Night, the Republicans' 30-seat majority in the House was turned around to a similar margin for the Democrats, and as Socialist Worker went to press, the Democrats' hope for a one-seat majority in the Senate hung on razor-thin victories in Virginia and Montana.

The election provided the final confirmation that the "Republican Revolution"--inaugurated with the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994 and carried on by the Bush administration, especially with its "war on terror" following the September 11 attacks--has disintegrated under the weight of its own arrogance, corruption and cruelty.

What else to read

Read Lance Selfa's analysis of the rise and fall of the Republican era, "The Crisis of the GOP," in a recent issue of the International Socialist Review.

You can also download an ISO Web book by Lance Selfa, The Democratic Party and the Politics of Lesser Evilism, which is based on articles that appeared in the ISR, Socialist Worker and elsewhere.

For more on how the Democrats aided and abetted the rise of the Republicans, check out Left Out: How Liberals Helped Re-Elect George Bush by Joshua Frank. Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, edited by Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn of CounterPunch magazine, makes the case against the Anybody-But-Bush mania that dominated the 2004 election.

 

On the central points of its agenda--the war on Iraq, homeland security, cutting taxes, right-wing fanaticism on social issues, "clean" government--Republican rule is at least partly if not wholly discredited.

By the final weeks of the campaign, Bush's popularity within his own party had sunk so low that White House schedulers' attempts to organize his pre-election appearances were hampered by Republican candidates saying thanks, but no thanks.

On the all-important Monday before the election, Bush traveled to Florida for a get-out-the-vote rally attended by Republican Senate candidate Katherine Harris, destined to be trounced the next day by more than 20 percentage points. But not for Charlie Crist, the Republican candidate for governor.

Crist turned down the opportunity to be photographed standing next to the commander-in-chief--though he did find time in his day-before-the-election schedule to appear with Sen. John McCain.

Crist was right. The election the next day was a referendum on the Bush presidency, and Bush lost.

Even right-wing commentators recognized that U.S. politics is at a turning point. "It's clear that this election will mark the end of conservative dominance," wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks several weeks before the election. "This election is a period, not a comma in political history."

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TWO YEARS ago, the Republicans were riding high from their trouncing of John Kerry and the Democrats, and commentators on the right and left were talking about the enduring conservatism of "Red-State America." The media obsession was with so-called "value voters"--the 22 percent of people who told exit pollsters that their chief concern was vaguely defined "moral values."

But this obscured the fact Bush improved his showing across the board from 2000, including in reliably Democratic states like New York, New Jersey and Illinois, and among Democratic "base" groups like Latinos and union households. The real explanation for Bush's victory wasn't that ordinary Americans embraced his right-wing agenda, but that John Kerry and the Democrats failed to give people anything to vote for.

The Republican program remained deeply unpopular--something highlighted by the fact that Bush's popularity began falling from almost the day after the election and has continued to decline with few interruptions ever since.

Bush's most cherished project for using his "political capital," Social Security privatization, collapsed before a proposal even made it to Congress.

Meanwhile, the centerpiece of the U.S. "war on terror"--the occupation of Iraq--lurched from one self-inflicted crisis to another. By this year, majority public sentiment against the war began to find a reflection in the bipartisan pro-war political establishment, with not only Democrats but Republicans discussing proposals for an "exit strategy."

To the shock of White House political advisers who were certain the Republicans would be able to play the "national security" card for another election, even Bush had to abandon his "stay the course" mantra.

At the same time, the Republicans' rhetoric about "family values" and its 1994 vow to end Congress' "cycle of scandal and disgrace" was exposed as a fraud by a series of outrages, culminating in the Mark Foley congressional page scandal. The Republicans' sanctimonious preaching about personal responsibility was revealed as a lie when top party leaders--not to mention major figures on the Religious Right, such as former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed--were revealed to be neck-deep in corruption themselves or covering up for their colleagues.

The crisis of the Republicans has helped show that "Red-State America" was a myth--and that the Bush agenda, beneath the fearmongering and scapegoating used to whip up support, remains deeply unpopular.

This explains an aspect of this year's election that seemed to mystify political pundits--the fact that the Republicans were unable to take credit for an economy that, on paper, looks relatively strong, at least in comparison to the last two elections.

But as is so obvious to anyone outside the ranks of the well-paid punditocracy, the U.S. economic recovery has been highly uneven, as a direct result of Bush administration policies, especially its massive tax cut giveaways to the super-rich. As Lance Selfa wrote in the International Socialist Review, "The clear public perception that Bush has been a president for the rich, coupled with the increasing precariousness of ordinary people's lives reinforced by the bipartisan neoliberal consensus, has discredited neoliberal nostrums."

Even on social issues, the supposed crucial appeal of the right wing's agenda, there is a gap between the "Red-State America" theory and the consciousness of most people. With an exception of a slight rightward shift on attitudes toward abortion in the late 1990s, opinion polls show that a majority of white workers--the supposed inhabitants of "Bush country"--are demonstrably more tolerant on social issues than they were two decades ago.

The Republican success in using cultural conservative "wedge issues"--for example, the hysteria over same-sex marriage--has been successful because Democrats caved on these issues, refusing to put forward a defense of equality that could have connected with the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians throughout U.S. society.

In fact, the actual program that the Christian Right wants to impose "is anathema to the majority of Americans," Selfa points out.

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GIVEN THE evident dissatisfaction with the right's agenda, it's a wonder that the Republicans have gotten away with as much as they have.

One essential reason for this success has been the fact that the other mainstream party in U.S. politics, the Democrats, agrees on much more with the Republicans than they differ on. As a result, while the consciousness of a majority of people has remained to the left on most issues, mainstream politics has lurched further and further right.

One obvious example is the issue of immigration. Last spring saw some of the largest demonstrations in U.S. history against right-wing legislation that would have criminalized the 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.

But this cry for basic human rights had no reflection in mainstream politics. In Washington, the "debate" on immigration was confined to, on the right, the racist immigrant bashers, and on the left, pro-corporate advocates of a guest-worker program and a highly restricted "path to citizenship" for a minority of immigrants.

Proposals that a decade ago were confined to the far-right reaches of the Republican Party--like building a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border--are now accepted by all sides in Washington.

As a result, another feature of the current political situation--along with continued sentiment against the right-wing agenda among a majority of people--is a growth in the politics and organizations of the far right, especially on the issue of immigration.

This is a result of not only the pulling of the Republicans, but the pushing of the Democrats. Rather than present an alternative to Republican policies, the Democrats support proposals that mirror the substance of the GOP program, and differ only on the details.

On Iraq, Democrats have criticized the tactics of the Bush administration, but the proposals of party leaders--when they say anything concrete--are aimed at repackaging the occupation, not ending.

Likewise, when the Bush administration demanded legislation endorsing its policies of torture and indefinite detention, not a peep was heard from Democrats. It was left to a handful of Senate Republicans to weakly object to--and then capitulate on--a few aspects of the proposal.

The Republicans' crisis is leading to a fallout among the thieves. For example, former House Majority Leader Dick Armey has been denouncing the "self-appointed Christian leaders" as "thugs" and "bullies" who "want to impose their version of 'righteousness' on others" and who are responsible for the Republicans' "electoral rout."

The Christian Right's response? "If it weren't for the [same-sex marriage ban] amendment in Ohio, John Kerry would be president," said Rev. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist convention. "So shut up, Dick."

For anyone who cares about peace or justice, the Republicans' meltdown is sweet vindication. The end of one-party rule in Washington represents the opening up of possibilities for change.

But no one should have any illusions that the Democrats will present a real challenge to the Republican agenda. They are dedicated to the same priorities--defending the interests of Corporate America, expanding U.S. powers overseas, containing demands for democracy and equality at home--as the Republicans.

Turning back the right-wing agenda will depend on rebuilding political and social movements that can put pressure on all the politicians in Washington.

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