United States: The Democrats – Are They an Alternative to Bush?

As we head into the second half of the third year of the reign of George Bush the Younger, the hatred of millions of workers, youth, and people of color against him and his neo-conservative advisers is intensifying. People see a regime hellbent on asserting an arrogant corporate imperialism abroad, while waging war on civil liberties, social programs, the environment, and the rights of workers, women, and immigrants here at home.

Socialists have long stressed that both the Republicans and the Democrats are dominated by corporate interests. But the Bush administration is also beholden to the Christian right and so-called neo-conservatives, whose stated desire is to undo all gains made by working people in the 20th century. People are absolutely right to fear this intensely reactionary, unelected clique, and to want to throw it out.

In these circumstances, you would think that the Democrats would be in an extremely strong position in the run-up to the presidential campaign of 2004. But to hear the media tell it, they face a difficult uphill battle against a very popular president. However, in reality the problems the Democrats face have nothing to do with their alleged lack of success in appealing to the "center" of American politics, and everything to do with their inability to (or lack of interest in) seriously appealing to working people, women, African Americans, Latinos, and young people.

Together these groups constitute the vast majority of the American population, but they also include the majority of people who do not vote. And why should they? Tens of millions distrust or hate Bush, but what is the alternative? Let’s take a quick look at the recent record of the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party leadership supported spending billions of American taxpayers’ dollars on the war for oil in Iraq. The vast majority of Democrats in Congress supported the USA Patriot Act, which strips civil liberties away from American workers, particularly immigrants.

The Democrats have been carrying out layoffs and cuts in social services at the city and state levels. In New Jersey, Illinois, California, Washington and other states, the Democratic Party has carried out an avalanche of budget cuts.

The last Democratic president, Clinton, cut welfare more drastically than either Reagan or Bush Sr. did. From bombing Serbia to the continuous bombing of Iraq, Clinton also continued the fine Democratic Party tradition of making war not peace, from Hiroshima to Vietnam to now.

The Democrats would have a much better chance to take back the White House if they made a sharp break – at least at the level of rhetoric – with the pro-business "New Democrat" policies of the Clinton era.

The Democratic Candidates

Joseph Lieberman, the Enron Democrat, is the favorite of the right-wing Democratic Leadership Council. Lieberman’s economic and social agenda is nearly indistinguishable from Bush; on the issue of Iraq, Lieberman only differs from the Administration by trying to "out-hawk the hawks," calling for an expanded "war on terrorism."

John Kerry, for all his rhetoric about "regime change at home" and "fighting for working families," was also staunchly pro-war, giving a standing ovation to Bush’s State of the Union address on the eve of the war on Iraq.

On the basis of the current policies of Lieberman, or even Kerry, the Democrats would present a very weak opposition to Bush. If Lieberman wins the nomination (a long shot) the disgust could lead large numbers of more left-leaning Democrats out of the party for good.

On the other hand, Dick Gephardt, John Edwards, Howard Dean, and Dennis Kucinich are all candidates that could conceivably take the party in a more populist direction, thus igniting a much more serious race. However, these candidates deserve more scrutiny. It is not enough to say that they are against Bush; what are they actually for?

Gephardt’s proposed health care plan, for example, would still leave millions of Americans without substantial health care coverage. Health care is a right, and big business should be forced to cough up the change to fund comprehensive health care for everyone. We’ve all heard Democratic Party politicians like Gephardt sing and dance about health care, but there have been very few results.

John Edwards, a youngster from North Carolina, is a favorite of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Edwards is also a favorite of American big business. He’s the current leader among Democratic Presidential hopefuls in terms of big money contributions. Edwards spews a lot of big talk about being a "fighter for working people," but you can’t stand up for working people without fighting big business and Edwards wouldn’t bite the hand that feeds him.

Howard Dean is the darling of a section of the anti-war movement. However, Dean was clear that he would have supported a war on Iraq with UN approval. Also, when Howard Dean was governor of Vermont, he slashed funding for education, leaving teachers laid off and class sizes bigger. Dean has stressed in his campaign that he is "fiscally prudent" and a "friend of the business community."

Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich is probably the most "left-wing" Democratic candidate. Kucinich voted against the war on Iraq, and he supports a universal health care system. However, Kucinich supported Bush’s war on Afghanistan, and he has a long anti-choice record.

Kucinich may mobilize many labor and youth activists to campaign for him. However, his candidacy exposes the fundamental problem with seeing the Democratic Party as a vehicle for any sort of "progressive" politics. Because he actually advocates some serious reforms, Kucinich will receive no support from any part of the party’s machine, whether in Congress or at the state or local level. And he will receive absolutely no backing from the party’s corporate sponsors.

Does this all this mean that we are helpless against the neo-conservative agenda? Hardly. Because the most important struggle against Bush and his ruling class backers is not going to happen at the ballot box in November 2004, but on the streets, in the workplaces, and in the communities.

Some have called for a movement to "impeach Bush." We will be part of any real movement against Bush, but we have no illusions in an impeachment process that in practical terms would have to be led by Democrats in Congress, and would only result in transferring power to arch-conservative Dick Cheney.

The central importance of social struggle is underlined by a few historical examples. All serious social gains for working people, from the right to form a union to the right to vote itself, were achieved by mass movements.

Ronald Reagan could have been stopped right at the start if the labor movement had defeated the attempt to bust the air traffic controllers’ union, PATCO, in 1981. And let us not forget that if working people had been mobilized in (and to go to) Florida to defend the legitimate outcome of the 2000 election, Bush the Younger would never have spent a day in the White House! But of course, mobilizing working people is the last thing the Democrats want to do.

What we need to do now is build coalitions – first of all at the local level – to fight back against the corporate offensive. These coalitions could begin with one-day conferences including union activists, immigrant groups, community organizations, youth groups, and the Green Party. Besides discussing a concrete strategy of social resistance to layoffs, budget cuts, and capitalist wars, including mass protests and strike action, these conferences should also discuss running working-class candidates independently of both the Democrats and Republicans.

Such campaigns can lay the basis for what we really need: a workers’ party that stops at nothing in the fight to break the grip of the corporations on American society.

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