Class war converts?

SUDDENLY, THE two Democrats vying for the party's presidential nomination are talking like hardened class warriors.

"George Bush hands out billions in tax cuts year after year to the biggest corporations and the wealthiest few," said Barack Obama, in a campaign speech at a General Motors plant in Wisconsin. "For seven long years, we've had a government of, by, and for the special interests, and we've had enough," said Hillary Clinton in a campaign speech at--you guessed it--a General Motors plant, this one in Ohio.

In contrast to the hyper-cautious campaigns of the recent past, in which Democrats positioned themselves as close to Republicans as possible, Obama and Clinton are taking it to George Bush and the record of Republican rule in Washington.

The sharpness of the rhetoric is another indication that the tide is turning in U.S. politics because of the mass popular rejection of George Bush's presidency and the right-wing, pro-corporate agenda that has dominated Washington since before Bush, dating back to Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

But this shouldn't be allowed to obscure the fact that the Democrats have a long history of saying one thing to win votes and doing another if they get into office. History shows that the politicians of both major parties have different priorities from ordinary people--and they only champion reforms that make workers' lives better when they feel pressure from below.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

OBAMA AND Clinton's populist rhetoric is connected first of all to the scramble for votes. With the race for the nomination looking tighter than ever, both desperately want to win the crucial upcoming primary contests in Ohio and Texas, and they are speaking to the issue that voters say is their number one concern: the economy.

At the same time, however, the candidates' duel over economic issues is a reflection of the scramble for answers within the U.S. ruling establishment as a severe recession looms. Even the business press is sounding the alarm about the damage caused by the mortgage meltdown and the threat of a financial crisis more severe than anything seen in decades.

The shift of corporate campaign contributions behind the Democrats is a signal that America's rulers are looking to the Democrats to come up with a program that will sort out the worst economic damage--and, at the same time, get U.S. workers to go along with the sacrifices and austerity that will be needed to restore the economy to "health," on the terms of Corporate America.

Thus, both Obama and Clinton will give voice to the popular anger at the fraudsters who peddled sub-prime mortgages and the Wall Street fat cats who got even more obscenely rich off the housing boom.

But their actual proposals for dealing with the crisis don't go that much further than what the White House has come up with--and even mainstream commentators recognize that Bush's agenda is about bailing out the financial system, rather than the millions of ordinary people facing foreclosure.

Both candidates--but Obama, in particular--have inspired enthusiastic support by tapping into the rejection of Bush and the discontent with politics as usual in Washington. But neither has moved outside the moderate framework of the Democratic Party mainstream, so you won't find either one committing themselves to a proposal that could be tagged as "big government." Thus, even their most extravagant-sounding proposals fall short of what would be needed to deal with the full scale of the coming crisis.

Obama, for instance, recently unveiled a proposal for a "National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank," at a cost of $60 billion in spending over 10 years for highways and other projects. That may sound like a lot, but it barely qualifies as a drop in the bucket--the American Society for Civil Engineers estimates that a thorough program to fix all of the ailing infrastructure in the U.S. would cost $1.6 trillion.

If Obama or Clinton really wanted to take on these issues, the money could be found--but only by tapping into funds that would make the politicians of both parties scream.

For example, the Pentagon budget for next year is likely to surpass $500 billion and account for half of all military spending anywhere on the planet. But you won't hear either of the two top Democrats challenge that obscene sum. On the contrary, both Clinton and Obama are vowing to expand the military by recruiting between 80,000 and 100,000 more soldiers.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

A CLOSER look at their history shows that the Democrats have always claimed to represent the interests of working people when asking for votes--but actually represented quite different interests once in positions of power.

The Republicans are the favored party of the American ruling class--a majority of the people who preside over U.S. corporations and the other ruling institutions of society prefer to see the GOP in power. But when their political A-Team is too unpopular or discredited to win votes, this elite can count on a predictable and non-threatening "alternative" to step into place--the Democrats.

For a case in point, look no further than the last time a Democrat won the White House--with promises to end years of conservative rule, "kick-start" an ailing economy and bring a "new direction" to Washington. Bill Clinton did exactly none of these things.

The first thing to go was Clinton's stimulus program, touted throughout the presidential campaign. From almost the moment of his election, Clinton started whittling away at the proposal, and in the end, even a scaled-down stimulus died in a Congress still controlled by the Democrats.

Even Clinton's least controversial campaign pledges were broken--like, for example, legislation to ban the use of permanent replacement workers in strikes, which likewise failed in Congress for the lack of a strong push by the White House. Meanwhile, the Democratic administration pulled out all the stops to win approval of the pro-business North American Free Trade Agreement.

Two years into his presidency, the Republicans--benefiting from a wave of disillusionment with Clinton--took control of both houses of Congress, and the Clinton administration settled into a familiar pattern of pandering to the right on social issues and talk of "fiscal responsibility" as an excuse to cut government spending.

When Clinton came up for re-election in 1996, one disgruntled Republican commented, "The good news is that we're going to have a Republican president in 1996. The bad news is that it will be Bill Clinton."

Of course, the next Democrat in the White House could be faced with a much more severe economic and social crisis--and such a setting, Democrats have proved capable in the past of much bolder action. But that action has to be understood in the overall context.

For example, Franklin Roosevelt presided over the New Deal reforms of the 1930s as a response to the Great Depression. But he didn't do so as a "friend of labor"--on the contrary, Roosevelt insisted he was "the best friend the profit system ever had." His New Deal program was aimed at rescuing the economic system from its most severe crisis in history, while heading off the threat of a revolt from below.

Thus, Roosevelt didn't propose the New Deal during his 1932 campaign for the White House. It came about once he took office, and included measures that his Republican predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had already initiated.

Even the law that is remembered by the labor movement as the most important part of the New Deal--Section 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act, which guaranteed unions' right to organize--was at first greeted by big business as a victory for its side, since it seemed to open the way for the spread of company unions.

The law only came to have the importance it does for unions because of the struggle from below to organize in basic industry. In other words, the struggle from below that shaped the New Deal.

Today, Obama and Clinton are raising expectations that a Democrat in the White House will sweep away the rotten consequences of Bush's years in office and bring real changes that improve the lives of working people. But to judge from history, whether that happens or not depends on the mobilization of social struggles that force the politicians to act.