Ducking, dodging and doing nothing

January 11, 2008

THE EARLY Democratic primaries shook up a contest that Hillary Clinton, the candidate with the most support within the party establishment, was expected to win easily--and turned the campaign theme sounded by Barack Obama of the need for "change" into the slogan of the day, even for Clinton herself.

For millions of people fed up with years of war and the untrammeled growth of corporate power, the results will have raised the hope that the 2008 presidential election may finally bring about the long-awaited break with business as usual in Washington.

But there is a recent experience that shouldn't be forgotten, where high hopes raised by an election turning into deep despair--the 2006 congressional elections that swept the Democratic Party into control of both houses of Congress. Now, after a year in power, the Democratic Congress is no more popular than George Bush.

The 2006 vote was widely seen as a referendum on the Iraq war--and a cause for hope that the Bush administration would finally face opposition from Democratic lawmakers, whose resolve would be stiffened by the popular mandate they won at the polls.

"The administration will now have to answer some tough questions on its rush to war, its failed arms control and broader foreign policies, its abuse of our constitutional rights, and its failed economic and budgetary policies," pledged Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). The election results are "a vindication of our change the direction of our Iraq policy and bring our troops home."

But just four months after they took over, the Democrats surrendered on the war, allowing the Congress to pass $120 billion of supplemental war spending without any of the promised withdrawal provisions.

In March, both the House and the Senate had approved the funding--the largest supplemental spending bill in history--but the Democrats proudly pointed to a clause in the legislation that imposed a "timetable" for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq towards the end of 2008.

The fine print gave Bush plenty of ways to evade even this limitation--for example, by making exemptions to keep U.S. troops in Iraq to "train Iraqi forces" or "combat terrorism." But Bush vetoed the bill anyway, and in the showdown that followed, the Democrats caved.

FOR MANY antiwar activists, this capitulation came as a shock. How could the resounding vote against the war in Iraq in November come so quickly to naught?

But the Democrats' collapse on the Iraq war was only the beginning. From reversing Bush's tax cuts for the rich to restoring any semblance of constitutionally protected civil liberties, the Democrats' tough talk turned into retreat again and again.

After the Democrats backed down on curbing the administration's newly claimed intelligence-gathering powers, the usually staid New York Times editorial page declared, "Every now and then, we are tempted to double-check that the Democrats actually won control of Congress last year. It was particularly hard to tell this week.

"Democratic leaders were cowed, once again, by propaganda from the White House and failed, once again, to modernize the law on electronic spying...The question really is whether Congress should toss out chunks of the Constitution because Mr. Bush finds them inconvenient and some Democrats are afraid to look soft on terrorism."

The Democrats defended such votes with pleas that they were helpless in the face of Republican intransigence. After all, they had only a razor-thin majority in the Senate and needed 60 votes to overcome the Republicans' repeated filibusters. Overturning a Bush veto required 67 votes, an even higher threshold.

But this is a pretty poor excuse. "In reality, Democrats need just 41 Senate votes to stop the war--enough to maintain a filibuster...and prevent any new war funding bills from being passed. The problem with this strategy is that if Democrats adopted it, it would mean taking responsibility for ending the war--rather than sharing it with the White House and/or Republicans in Congress."

Congress' failure to block the Bush agenda in any way led to a steady decline of its approval rating. By October, even Bush, with his abysmally low 33 percent level of support, was more popular than the Democratic-controlled Congress, at 29 percent approval.

FOR THE antiwar movement, this turn of events was profoundly disorienting.

After the 2006 election, antiwar activists with United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), the largest national antiwar coalition, took credit for turning out a large "peace vote."

The Democrats' victory was seen as a vindication of UFPJ's strategy of "[building] a bipartisan peace bloc in Congress that can set the date for troop withdrawal and force Bush and the Pentagon to end the occupation," according to Judith Le Blanc, a UFPJ national co-chair.

But rather then carry out the antiwar mandate of the November vote, the Democrats caved--and activists meeting at the UFPJ assembly in July admitted to feeling a sense of isolation, despite the reinvigoration of local activism following the November election.

This sense of demoralization occurred at the very moment that more and more people were growing increasingly outraged at the growing violence in Iraq and Congress' inaction--people who could have been mobilized to turn this disaffection into organized expressions of protest.

The unwillingness of leading voices of the antiwar movement to examine the failure of the "peace bloc" strategy has left the movement rudderless as the war in Iraq approaches its fifth anniversary.

Instead of mobilizing mass protests to confront both the Republican White House and the Democratic Congress in Washington, UFPJ has called for a year of mini-protests in all 435 Congressional districts--making it certain that expressions of antiwar opposition will be dispersed and ineffectual.

It is an article of faith among many antiwar activists that there is a time for protest and a time for getting the "right" Democrat elected--and that in an election year, the importance of the voting booth overshadows the need for marches and demonstrations.

But this misses a crucial point about the war in Iraq and the larger "global war on terror"--namely, that these wars aren't simply a bad policy pursued by the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, but are part and parcel of a larger foreign policy strategy that has been pursued jointly by both Democrats and Republicans since the end of the Cold War.

That explains why all of the leading Democratic presidential candidates--Clinton, Obama and Edwards--have all refused to pledge that, if elected, they would withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of their first term in 2013.

As Socialist Worker argued after the Democrats voted to fund the war without requiring a withdrawal timetable: "The Democrats are the second party of the Washington political system, and while they claim to speak for the broad antiwar sentiment among ordinary people, in reality, party leaders listen 'to the same people who have the ear of George W. Bush and Karl Rove--namely, wealthy individuals and institutions,' as Andrew Bacevich, the retired Army colonel and war critic, whose son was killed in Iraq in May, wrote in the Washington Post. 'When it comes to Iraq, money ensures that the concerns of big business, big oil, bellicose evangelicals and Middle East allies gain a hearing. By comparison, the lives of U.S. soldiers figure as an afterthought.'"

The war in Iraq--and the corresponding war on civil liberties and domestic social programs at home--won't end until the antiwar movement takes to heart the famous words of the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass: "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters."

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