At one point, while Air Force One was making its way back to Crawford, Texas, and the ranch, the President called the small group of pool reporters abroad up to the front cabin to chat. He is said to have shown “little sign of worry” about a recent slide in his public polling numbers. He did say, however, that some members of Congress are quite concerned about public opinion these days, especially as regards his plans for changes in the Social Security system.
“This is a difficult issue. I’ve heard members say — I’m not going to tell you who they are, nor what party they’re from – ‘I wish you hadn’t have brought this up’,” Bush said. “We hear the talk out of Capitol Hill saying, ‘Oh, darn, I wish the President had just focused only on the budget, or maybe the energy bill.’ There are a lot of people who would rather not talk about this issue. I understand that.”
“And there’s beginning to be some talk on Capitol Hill,” the President went on. “But I’m not the least bit surprised, because it is a tough issue for members, for people who’ve got, you know, a relatively short-term horizon, two-year horizon. They’re worried about — some of them are worried about elections.”
This democracy thing can be tricky; eventually you have those elections.
So the question becomes: when you come up against the fact that the majority of your constituents oppose what you are doing â€“ or proposing to do â€“ do you relent or barrel ahead? If you are not beholden to the people, to whom then are you exactly responsible?
Of course, a good leader has the responsibility to formulate good policies (aided by consultation with the best minds available) and to fight for them, even if they do not meet with immediate positive response, and to persuade her or his constituents of the wisdom of what is being undertaken. However, as many in the President’s own party are coming to realize, to stubbornly persevere in the face of widespread rejection is to risk electoral retribution sooner or later. Bush can scoff at fellow politicians with only “relatively short-term horizons” because he’s got another three and a half years left in office while a lot of them will face the music in less than two. For them the present course could be devastating.
That’s what the members of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party and parliamentary bloc recently found out. For two years now, the Italian leader’s policies â€“ domestic and foreign – have faced widespread popular opposition, particularly his government’s ties to the Bush Administration and its participation in the war in Iraq. Still, Berlusconi pushed ahead. But he failed to win the public to his side (in spite of the fact that he personally owns several of the country’s main television stations and a whole lot more of the Italian media). Even his ambitious tax cutting policies didn’t do the trick; the Economist noted recently that the cuts were accompanied by “sly increases in indirect taxes,” and given the poor state of the country’s economy, “voters may have realized that any genuine tax cuts would be unaffordable.” Think of the Alternative Minimum Tax; think of our own huge government and ballooning trade deficits.
Berlusconi’s last minute gambit of pledging to withdraw Italian troops from Iraq by September turned out to be too little too late, especially as he started backtracking on the pledge within hours.
In the end, disaster struck. The prime minister’s four- party center-right coalition went into the election with majorities in eight of the 13 regions where there was balloting. On April 3-4, it lost six of them to the center-left opposition, sustaining critical losses in both the region around Rome and the southern region of Puglia to the South, which had been controlled by the hard right.
How the mighty fall. Only a few years ago the world’s major media were reporting on the death of the left all over the place and the new hegemony of the right.
However, the trend didn’t start with Italy. First there was Spain, where last year the Socialist Party of now- Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero trounced the conservative People’s Party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar in an election in which Iraq figured prominently. Although conventional wisdom has it that it was the clumsy attempt to pin responsibility for the train bombing in Madrid on Basque separatists, the handwriting had been on the wall for some time before that event. In May 2003 the Socialists beat out the conservatives in regional and local elections. The right-wing People’s Party (PP) had hoped to recoup its losses last year, but alas, the war was still going on, the Spanish economy remained in the doldrums and the Spaniards had decided that cocky Anzar’s folksy “populism,” was better characterized as “autocratic.”
The stage is now set for another big test next month when British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labor Party faces the voters in parliamentary elections. “And everywhere hangs the cloud of the Iraq war,” Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens wrote April 15. “Voters were fairly evenly divided about removing Saddam Hussein. But the perception that Mr. Blair misled the nation into war runs well beyond those opposed to the conflict. On every measure, trust in the prime minister had been badly corroded.”
“Poland has just announced it is pulling out of Iraq at the end of the year, just as Spain did last year,” journalist Jonathan Steele wrote April 13 in the Guardian. “Italy is wavering on the verge of a similar decision. If Blair wants to regain the trust he lost before the Iraq war, his best approach would be to announce the same by May 5. He would help Iraqis as well as himself.” However, smart money is saying there won’t be any upset because British voters will hold their noses and vote Labor. The opposition Tories are divided among themselves and have little to offer. Still, majority opposition to Blair’s strong ties with Bush and the presence of British troops in Iraq will hang over the contest and many voters are expected to protest by voting for the Liberal Democratic Party or the Green Party, both of which oppose the war.
At least the British have credible national alternatives, something we sorely lack.
When it comes to the democracy thing and representing the people who put you in office, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi â€“ like a lot of others in Congress â€“ is in the the same league as Tony Blair. She continues to vote to support the war in Iraq even though her San Francisco constituents voted explicitly against the war in a referendum last November.
What’s most needed right now is a broad and united progressive coalition to stand up to the warmakers, uncompromisingly defend and extend social programs that benefit poor and working-class people, and act to protect our civil liberties in the face of the conservative crusaders. For that don’t count on the Democrats in Washington, who appear more determined to represent their homies in the Beltway than the folks back home. “As it stands today, there’s little evidence – outside of the Social Security issue – that the Democrats have changed all that much since Kerry’s defeat in November,” wrote Terry M. Neal in the Washington Post (April 11). “They don’t appear positioned to take advantage of Bush’s dropping poll numbers any more than Republicans are queuing up behind the President as a strong leader of the party. It seems in some ways that both parties are doing their best to lose.”
When this is all over, when and if the President’s Social Security privatization scheme is stopped or stalled, the Democrats will, of course, step forward to claim the credit and the glory. Actually, most of the credit should go to the independent movements, organizations and internet communicators like the AFL- CIO, NAACP, Campaign for America’s Future, MoveOn.org and AARP, who have ignited the struggle, educated the public, and mobilized the opposition.
The right-wing Weekly Standard tries to put a positive spin on the President’s Social Security stumble. In doing so it unmasks the Administration’s fiction that its objective is Social Security “reform.” In the April 18 issue writer Stephen Moore, after admitting that the Bush private accounts plan is “now officially floundering,” writes, “If the debate over the past months on Social Security has established anything, it is that the Ponzi financing scheme for Social Security – an invention of FDR and the architects of the New Deal – is living on borrowed time. The political momentum here and in dozens of other nations is on the side of the privatizers.” Perhaps, but with the President’s polling numbers setting a historic low for an incumbent, the momentum may well be moving, but not in the direction of Bush or the current crop of congressional privatizers.
Carl Bloice is a freelance journalist in San Francisco.