US primaries: Voters Demand Change While Two Parties Offer Empty Promises

Electorate looking to shed the legacy of the Bush administration

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Voters demand change while two parties offer empty promises

The Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary kicked off the 2008 presidential elections, which are poised to dominate media attention for the next 11 months. The elections are occurring against the backdrop of widespread anger and disaffection in U.S. society, with Americans concerned about the looming economic recession, fed up with the ongoing quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, and enraged at seven years of right-wing policies under Bush. The results of the primaries so far show an electorate that is looking to shed the legacy of the Bush administration and strike a blow against the establishment of both parties.

Both Iowa and New Hampshire saw record turnouts. Much higher numbers have turned out on the Democratic side, reflecting a desire to get rid of the Republicans who are tarnished by their association with Bush. 239,000 voted in the Democratic caucuses in Iowa, nearly double the 125,000 in 2004, and far more than the 108,000 who voted in the Republican caucuses. Despite these higher turnouts, still only a very small percentage of Americans vote in the primaries, and they tend to come from more affluent sections of society.

The primary contests, like the general elections, are controlled by big money. The entire primary process is fundamentally undemocratic, not just because of the disproportionate influence given to two tiny states. Rather than reflecting the real spectrum of political opinion in society, the "viable" candidates have all been vetted by big business and the corporate media long in advance. For these reasons, the deep anger in U.S. society has only found a weak and distorted echo in the primary process. Nevertheless, the primary results provide a certain glimpse into the mentality of the American people.

Voters want change

The buzzword so far has been "change." The majority of both New Hampshire and Iowa voters said the top quality they were looking for in a candidate was someone who could bring about change. Even the Republican candidates are distancing themselves from the Bush administration, often sharply.

The call for "change" is more than just a campaign slogan, however. Fed up with the war in Iraq, worried about the economic squeeze on working people, and angry at the skyrocketing costs of healthcare and other necessities, 7 in 10 Americans say they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the U.S. (Gallup Poll, 12/6-12/9/07). Bush is one of the most hated presidents in U.S. history, while Congress’ approval rating is even lower at 18% (NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, 12/14-12/17/07). There is a growing crisis of confidence in all the main institutions of U.S. capitalism.

Obama’s victory in Iowa, as well as the second place finish of John Edwards, is a product of the anti-establishment mood and a voter revolt against Hillary Clinton. As late as November, Clinton had a commanding 20-point lead over Obama in national polls and was seemingly invincible.

Clinton had banked her campaign on an appeal to her experience in the Senate and as First Lady, but this approach proved out of touch with the psychology of primary voters, who are frustrated with the failures of the Democrats in Congress to stand up to the Bush administration and are looking for a sharp break with the policies of the last 7 years.

Many voters see her as a leading representative of the right-wing, pro-big business, Bush-lite policies of the Democratic Party, most of all for her vote to authorize Bush to go to war with Iraq in 2002. These voters are looking to get past the Bush and Clinton dynasties and punish those politicians most closely associated with the establishment. Obama is seen as the most viable candidate to this section of voters. Together, he and Edwards got 67% of the vote in Iowa, while Clinton finished third.


Obama’s win in Iowa and his strong showing in New Hampshire owe in large part to his popularity among young and independent voters. Obama won 57% of votes cast by 18-to-29 year olds in Iowa (CNN Entrance Poll, 1/3/08) and 60% of voters 18-24 in New Hampshire (CNN Exit Poll, 1/8/08).

Obama has presented himself as a fresh face, as the candidate representing "hope" and "change," highlighting his opposition to the Iraq war before it started and attempting to distance himself from Clinton. Despite his lofty rhetoric, Obama’s actual program offers no change at all from the usual corporate politics. He has earned the praise of the Democratic Leadership Council, the most right-wing, pro-corporate section of the Democratic Party.

Like Clinton and Edwards, Obama has refused to commit to withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq before 2013. In the Senate, he has voted to continue funding the war in Iraq, as well as voting for the Patriot Act. He has also threatened to unilaterally invade Pakistan. Domestically, Obama refuses to support a universal, single-payer health care system, and is one of the top recipients of donations from Wall Street, who view him as a candidate quite capable of defending the status quo and staving off any real change.

Despite losing Iowa, Clinton recovered to win the New Hampshire primary, leaving the race for the Democratic nomination a wide-open contest between her and Obama. Clinton won the women’s vote in New Hampshire by 12 percentage points, which was important since they made up 57% of Democratic primary voters.

Concerns over economy

An astounding 98% of voters in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire said they were worried about the state of the economy. Unemployment increased from 4.7% in November to 5% in December, after 31,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in December alone.. The economy was the top issue among New Hampshire voters, trailed closely by the war in Iraq and health care.

The concern over the economy seems to have benefited Clinton. Panicked by their defeat in Iowa, the Clinton campaigned took cues from both Edwards and Obama, raising the "change" slogan and adopting some economic populist language in the final New Hampshire debate. Clinton won the most support from working class voters, winning 47% of those with an income less than $50,000 voting (versus only 32% for Obama) and 44% of those who said the economy is doing poorly. This likely owes to a certain longing for a return to the "golden age" of the Clinton years, where real wages increased and the economy grew.

However, Bill Clinton’s administration also presided over the largest growth in inequality in U.S. history up to that point, the dismantling of welfare, the passage of NAFTA and entry into the WTO, and numerous laws that helped put more profits and power into the hands of corporations. Clinton laid the basis for the even further expansion of inequality and corporate power under Bush. Further, the next president will likely preside over an economic recession that, unless they are prepared to fiercely oppose big business, will force them to attack the living standards of U.S. workers in order to preserve corporate profits.

John Edwards

The third place Democratic candidate, John Edwards, has strongly railed against corporate power and made an active attempt to court the union vote. He has won the support of a number of unions across the country, including the Carpenters, Steelworkers, Mineworkers, and Transport Workers Union. In his speeches he has attacked the power of the oil, drug, and health insurance companies and the influence of corporate lobbyists.

This is not the first time a Democratic candidate has used populist rhetoric to attempt to win the nomination, yet his support is an indication of the anger building up in U.S. society toward the corporate stranglehold over the country. But Edwards’ radical rhetoric is not matched by his record or reflected in his actual program, which is quite limited and tame.

Edwards makes no radical proposals like slashing the massive Pentagon budget or instituting a massive public works program to provide living wage jobs for all. Like Clinton and Obama, he supports the continuation of the for-profit healthcare system. He calls for stronger unions and a stronger enforcement of labor laws, but says nothing about the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act. He proposes an increase in the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2012, which in reality is still far below a living wage.

As long as Edwards operates within the confines of the Democratic Party, his campaign is only a trap for progressive workers, youth and activists, pushing them behind a party controlled by and reflecting the interests of a tiny corporate elite. The real task, in order to build a movement capable of taking on the corporations, abolishing poverty, and providing a future for workers in the U.S. and around the world, is to build our own independent political voice and break the influence of the Democrats over the working class and progressive movements. Edwards’ campaign is just a vote-gathering exercise, not capable of seriously challenging corporate power. Even were he to win the nomination, which is unlikely given that the Democratic Party establishment is opposed to his campaign and instead favors Obama and Clinton, he would likely move to the right and jettison much of his anti-corporate rhetoric under pressure from the party leadership.

The Republicans

On the Republican side, the victory of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in Iowa also represented a repudiation of the big business, GOP establishment candidates. While the media has attempted to portray Huckabee primarily as the candidate of the Christian right, his appeal is also based on his economic populist rhetoric, which has frightened the Republican establishment.

Appearing on the Jay Leno show on the eve of the Iowa Caucus, Huckabee took a jab at Mitt Romney and others, saying, "People are looking for a presidential candidate who reminds them more of the guy they work with rather than the guy that laid them off." Huckabee made this statement after he crossed the Writers’ Guild picket line to appear on the show, showing how hollow his words are. Huckabee’s unorthodox campaign has also featured campaign commercials and appearances with actor Chuck Norris.

Huckabee’s decisive defeat of Romney in Iowa, as well as Giuliani’s decline in support, left the GOP establishment panicked. leading them to rally around a McCain comeback in New Hampshire as well as attempting to portray Huckabee as a sideline curiosity. Still, Huckabee now leads in national polls, and the race for the Republican nomination remains wide open, with the media favorites now John McCain, the victor in New Hampshire, and Romney.

The race for both the Republican and Democratic nominations will continue at least through Super Tuesday on February 5, when 20 states hold primaries. To compete in these races, candidates will require record amounts of money, ensuring that only the candidates who have been thoroughly vetted by Corporate America will be able to compete. The 2008 elections will be the most expensive in U.S. history, with over $1 billion expected to be spent, even outstripping 2004, which smashed all previous records.

Alternative to corporate politics needed

No matter who wins the nominations, the domination of corporations over the political system will ensure that the two major presidential candidates both support the expansion of the military by 90,000 more troops, the massive half-a-trillion dollar military budget – more than the rest of the world’s military spending combined – and the continuation of the so-called "war on terror," including leaving troops in Iraq and Afghanistan indefinitely. They will also support the continuation of the disastrous for-profit healthcare system and a host of other policies that benefit Corporate America at the expense of the majority of the population.

Unlike the mirage of change promised by Obama and the rest of the pack, workers and youth need a real alternative in the elections. A campaign behind a radical, independent, anti-war, pro-worker candidate could give a real voice to the millions of Americans fed up with the war in Iraq, the lack of affordable housing, health care and good-paying jobs, the mass poverty, under-funded education system, the racist criminal injustice system, and environmental devastation at the hands of corporate polluters.

The heating up of the presidential elections underlines the burning need for a strong independent left candidate to challenge the tired old corporate consensus of the two parties. If no credible left-wing alternative is built it will only allow candidates like Obama, Edwards, and Dennis Kucinich to funnel the genuine desires for change back into the Democratic Party. It also leaves space for right-wing populist Ron Paul to step into the vacuum and channel the anger against the war and the attacks on civil liberties behind his racist, anti-immigrant, pro-capitalist campaign.. Instead, an independent, anti-corporate, anti-war campaign would help encourage mass struggle from below – the only way real change has ever been achieved. It could lay the basis for future mass challenges to the two-party system and the formation of a party of the millions of working people in this country, not the millionaires.

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January 2008