Never in living memory has a sitting president strengthened his party’s position in both the Senate and the House of Representatives in mid-term elections. This is in spite of the deepening economic recession.
The Republicans, dominated by their right wing, now control the presidency, the Senate and the House. Even with only narrow control of the Senate (51 to 49) Bush is likely to stack the Federal judiciary with right-wing judges.
Bush’s election tactics paid off. Touring 12 cities and 15 states in the last few weeks in support of key Republican candidates, Bush made a personal appeal – as ’commander-in-chief of the war against terrorism’ – for a loyalty vote. The war fever distracted just enough attention away from the economic downturn and the wave of corporate business crimes.
And there were two other vital ingredients: piles of corporate cash [see Big Bucks Buy Votes] and the utter political bankruptcy of the rival big-business party, the Democrats, passively supported by the trade union leaders. Afraid of accusations of ’disloyalty’, they let Bush get away with it.
The Republicans’ mid-term victory appears to put fresh wind in Bush’s sails when it comes to a possible military strike against Iraq. Yet opinion polls showed declining support for the president’s Iraq policy during the campaign. Bush noticeably toned down his war-mongering rhetoric.
Winning a few more seats in Congress will not shield Bush from a growing reaction against the mounting costs of military adventures or prolonged entanglement in Iraq.
On the home front, Bush will no doubt treat the mid-term results as a mandate to aggressively pursue his pro-big business agenda. But in reality there was no Republican ’landslide’, no ’swing to the right’. True, the Republicans captured Senate seats in some traditional Democratic strongholds such as Minnesota, Missouri, and Georgia, and generally tightened their political hold on the South.
Overall, however, the Republican gains were very marginal. The voting section of the electorate is still split almost 50-50 down the middle.
Deep alienation from the whole political system is shown by the low turnout, despite the momentous events of the last year or so: 11 September, the collapse of the stock-exchange bubble, business scandals, and the prospect of war against Iraq.
The turnout in this year’s primary elections was only 17% of the voting age population, the second lowest primary turnout ever recorded. The reported turnout on Tuesday, 5 November was about 37%, compared with the 35% who voted in the 1998 mid-term elections, the lowest for 56 years.
AS AN opposition, the Democrats totally failed – despite all the ammunition to hand. They avoided challenging Bush’s determination to link 11 September attacks to ’regime change’ in Iraq. They failed to defend democratic rights, drastically curtailed in the name of the ’war against terrorism’.
They did not even campaign against Bush’s $1.35 trillion tax cut over ten years, which will go overwhelmingly to a million super-rich Americans. In spite of deep popular anger at big-business scandals, the Democrats failed to expose the rottenness of the system – not surprising when many Democratic leaders took Enron and other corporate cash.
They have not championed a state-financed health-care system, despite the fact that over 41 million people (14.6%) have no health insurance and millions more have completely inadequate health cover.
The Democrats have paid the price for the political cowardice and bankruptcy of their leaders. The once-strong Democratic Party machine has crumbled. Voters registered as Democratic supporters have declined by 18 percentage points from the 1960s peak.
While the leaders of most labour unions are still stuck like glue to the Democrats, handing them ever-bigger amounts of election cash, a growing bunch of labor leaders are turning to Republican office-holders. In New York State, for instance, several public-sector unions supported the now re-elected Republican governor, George Pataki, on the strength of shortsighted pay deals that will rebound on their members in the future.
The Republicans, on the other hand, have strengthened their political machine, especially in the South. With huge infusions of big-business cash, they have created an enormous network of fund-raisers, lobbyists, right-wing think tanks, radio and TV talk-show hosts, and grass-roots activists, who increasingly conduct door-to-door canvassing.
While the overall turnout was down, the turnout in some seats targeted by the Republicans (for instance, in New Hampshire and Georgia) rose quite sharply.
EVEN AFTER his illegitimate presidential victory in 2000, courtesy of the Supreme Court, Bush rigorously pushed his right-wing, pro-business agenda. Corporate leaders have already presented a new wish list.
They want extended, permanent tax cuts for big business and the super-rich. They are pressing for Federal subsidies for corporate terrorism insurance. Oil companies are pushing to drill in the Alaskan nature reserve, and for the general relaxation of environmental protection.
Business wants new curbs on the right of workers and consumers to sue companies for mismanagement, environmental pollution, and health-and-safety violations. There are currently over 51 vacancies on the federal judicial bench: if Bush now fills these with right-wing judges, with life tenure, that will have far-reaching, adverse effects on women’s rights, democratic rights, and a whole range of social issues.
But there is a big question mark over how far Bush will be able to go. "Business leaders and their opponents in Washington agree that if the Republicans over-reach in their zeal to advance a pro-business agenda, they risk a strong protest," commented the New York Times, 8 November.
During the election campaign, the economy and business scandals were overshadowed by war fever. But it is on the economy that Bush will be judged in the 2004 presidential election. All the signs are that US capitalism has moved into a period of prolonged stagnation and crisis, though the short-tern business cycle will continue. With full control of Congress, Bush will have nobody else to blame.
The continued slide of the economy, with rising long-term unemployment and growing problems of debt, will provoke big upheavals. New York City, for instance, has a budget deficit of between $5 billion and $6 billion posing the threat of massive cuts. Recent industrial action by transport workers, firefighters, and other City workers is an overture to coming struggles throughout the US.
During the campaign, Bush used the Taft-Hartley act to impose a 90-day ’cooling-off’ period on the Longshoremen (dockers), who shut down all the West Coast ports. Bush’s unusual mid-term success will not protect the Republicans against a growing tide of opposition, protest movements and workers’ struggles.
Immediately after the Democrats’ defeat, their House leader, Dick Gepthardt, stepped down. The favourite for his replacement is Nancy Pelosi, who has a strong base in Democrat-dominated California.
She admitted they had utterly failed to distinguish themselves from the Republicans. Like former vice-president Al Gore, she is calling for an end to the cosying up to Bush. Pelosi was criticised by one possible rival, Martin Frost of Texas, who claims the country has shifted to the right and says the Democrats should follow suit.
Frost is reportedly "very uneasy about the party moving sharply to the left". In the wake of such a shameful defeat, however, it is likely the Pelosi trend will prevail.
In reality, however, the ’left’ of the Democratic Party is only marginally more liberal than its right wing. The Democrats are a big-business party, through and through, though they have traditionally relied on the support of the trade unions, for money and a loyalist vote.
But their record under Bush, who represents the greediest and most aggressive section of the US capitalists, shows the Democrats offer no alternative for working people. Their support for social reform and workers’ rights is at best half-hearted.
They have no solutions to the growing crisis of US capitalism. Ultimately, they are tied to their big business masters, who rein them in if they bend too much to pressure from the labour movement or the party’s populist wing.
THE TIME is long overdue for a party to provide political representation for working people, to mobilise workers, women, minorities, and young people in struggles to defend their interests and change society. The potential exists.
While voter registration has generally fallen, the number of voters registering as ’third party’ supporters or ’independents’ has increased eight-fold since the 1960s. More than a third of young African-Americans, traditionally strong Democrat supporters, now register as ’independent’.
The small (currently shrinking) Labor Party, founded in 1996 with the support of a handful of unions, has not got off the ground. Union leaders vetoed electoral campaigning, which is a vital tool for building a new mass party.
Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign on a Green Party ticket, despite its serious political shortcoming, showed the potential for a new party on the left. Nader, a radical populist, polled 2.7 million votes, and would have got more had not the race been so close (leading many Nader sympathisers to vote Democrat to keep out Republicans). Currently, some Green candidates are increasing their votes (for example, in Minnesota).
A political catalyst is needed to bring together the forces for a new mass party – labour union and community activists, minority and environmental campaigners, anti-war activists and wider layers who are sick of the corrupt monopoly of the big-business duo, the Republicans and Democrats. Events in the next few years will unavoidably bring this urgent task to the forefront of US politics.