Can the lackluster Democrats retake Congress?

THE REPUBLICAN Party is facing its deepest crisis in decades. The war in Iraq shows no signs of emerging from what many now describe as an intractable quagmire; the economy, though not now in recession, feels like it is to millions of people; and a series of financial and political scandals have rocked the Bush administration and GOP congressmen. President Bush’s approval ratings hover around 37 percent-with support for his handling of the war in Iraq even lower. And all the major polls show that something like 50 percent of likely voters believe the Democrats should run Congress, as opposed to 40 percent who continue to support the Republicans. The litany of Republican scandals and the disaster in Iraq should mean that Bush and his pals in Congress are sitting ducks.  

On the GOP side of the aisle, there is growing recognition of the writing on the wall. Sensing that association with Bush now may be a political liability, some Republicans who in the past have used Bush in their ads and at stump rallies are now running campaigns that make no mention of Bush. Maryland GOP Senate candidate Michael Steele has even gone so far as to criticize Bush for his handling of the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina.

But for all that, the Democratic Party has yet to pose clear alternatives to the Bush gang on most of the day’s key issues, from Iraq and immigration to public schools and health care. In spite of this lackluster performance, or perhaps because the Republicans’ fortunes have sunk so low, the Democratic Party may still win control over Congress in November (or at least the House). The Democrats need to pick up six seats in the Senate and fifteen in the House to take control of Congress in November. Polls show that they have a good chance to win at least some of these races.  

Who runs the Democratic Party?  

The Democratic Party is one of the oldest political parties in the world. Over the last 150 years it has jointly ruled American capitalism with the Republican Party, its younger rival. The Democrats have absorbed massive challenges from the Left and kept the profit system and the American empire on track. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously retorted, “I’m the best friend the profit system ever had.” In the 1960s and 1970s, the party absorbed a layer of antiwar and civil rights leaders and talked left in order to co-opt sections of those movements. This maneuver explains its lingering liberal reputation.

Yet today, the Democratic Party’s leadership is more right wing than it has been at any time since the 1950s. There are still old school liberals in the party, but they have been pushed to the margins by an aggressive pro-business leadership. In the mid-1980s Bill Clinton and Al Gore helped launch the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) in order to dispel any perception that the party was bound to any “special interests,” by which they meant civil rights and women’s organizations and trade unions. Twenty years later, the DLC wing of the party can claim total victory. This is a powerful fact that anyone who aims to push the party to the left must explain.  

Real power in the Democratic Party is shared between conservatives like Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid, and Dianne Feinstein and centrists like Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer, and John Kerry. Liberal Democrats like Barbara Lee, Dennis Kucinich, Russ Feingold, and John Conyers are locked out and hardly register in the party’s calculations. 


Democrats and war

Nowhere is this conservative domination clearer than in talking about Iraq and the Middle East in general. When Russ Feingold introduced a resolution in June calling for Bush to withdraw troops by December 2006, he couldn’t get a single Democratic senator to sign on. Even Howard Dean, the self-declared antiwar candidate in 2004, has adjusted himself to this reality. Back then he said he would have voted against the war because, “We have lost 500 soldiers and 2,200 wounded [in Iraq.] Those soldiers were sent there by the vote of Senator Lieberman and Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards. That is a fact.” Now, Dean tours the country touting his plan to “win” in Iraq. 

What “winning” means is anyone’s guess at this point. Last fall, when Representative John Murtha proposed a redeployment of American troops into Kuwait and conversion of the American ground occupation into a bombing campaign, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi first distanced herself from him. But the war had become so unpopular that she quickly changed her tune and went on the Daily Show to praise Murtha as a visionary. For more than a year, Democrats have put forward various “plans” aimed at “gradual” or “phased” withdrawals.

John Nichols from the Nation points out that the latest effort to articulate a united Democratic Party line on Iraq by Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid was put in a letter sent to President Bush on the first of August calling for, “’a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq [that] should begin before the end of 2006,’ but it does not propose anything akin to an exit strategy.” Nichols correctly concludes, “So where does this new letter leave the Democrats. Not far from where they were in June, before all hell broke loose in Baghdad…. [T]he Democratic Party has yet to embrace the position taken by the overwhelming majority of Americans. A July Gallup poll found that roughly 2 in 3 Americans want the U.S. to exit Iraq. Significantly, 31 percent wanted the exodus to begin immediately.” 

The Democrats are caught between the Scylla of their commitment to maintaining American control in the Middle East and the Charybdis of growing public opposition to the occupation of Iraq. Their inability to speak clearly about Iraq flows from this contradiction. They agree with Bush about the need to win in Iraq, but they can only beat him by appealing to the majority of Americans who want to withdraw the troops. This explains why thirteen Democratic Senators in June voted for a resolution put forward by Feingold and Kerry to withdraw troops from Iraq by 2007, only to turn around just one week later and vote unanimously for Bush’s $517 billion military budget. Like Odysseus, the Democrats choose to sail close to Scylla as their own “lesser-evil,” even though some of their crew are being devoured along the way.

Lest there be any doubt about the Democrats’ belief in American control of the Middle East, Israel‘s war on Palestine and Lebanon is clearing that up. In mid-July, the Senate voted 100 to 0 to support Israel‘s attacks on Hamas and Hezbollah and the House voted 410 to 8 to do the same. Russ Feingold’s support of Israel‘s war points out how little difference there really exists among the Democratic leadership. In the House, even Barbara Lee and Dennis Kucinich, the heroes of the Progressive Democrats of America, abstained on the vote. Apparently the popular Bay Area saying, “Barbara Lee speaks for me” (coined after her lone vote against the invasion of Afghanistan) does not apply to Palestinians and Lebanese people.  

When Iraqi puppet prime minister Nouri al-Maliki came to Washington in July, Democrats leapt at the chance to demonstrate their allegiance to Israeli militarism. Nancy Pelosi denounced al-Maliki for not condemning Hezbollah and Howard Dean called him an anti-Semite for not being sufficiently hostile to Iran


Discontent in the “big tent”  

This hard turn to the right has created a backlash of sorts. Senator Joe Lieberman is facing a primary challenge in Connecticut by wealthy businessman Ned Lamont, who is running against Lieberman’s outspoken support of President Bush and the occupation of Iraq. “President Bush rushed us into this war,” Lamont remarked in the July 7 Connecticut Democratic primary debate, “He told us it would be easy. We would be welcomed as liberators. Weapons of mass destruction. And Senator Lieberman cheered on the president every step of the way, when we should have been asking the tough questions.” Lamont proposes that a timeline be set for withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

If Lamont wins, it will strengthen those in the party who believe that the key to electoral success is to criticize Bush over his war policies. It should be kept in mind, however, that primaries are not the same as elections. No doubt, the fact that Lamont looks set to beat Lieberman as the ISR goes to press is a sign of the discontent among Democratic voters. However, Lamont is not so much antiwar as he is anti-Lieberman. Count Lamont among those Democrats who criticize the war in Iraq on the grounds that it hinders the ability of the United States to pursue its imperial ambitions in the region. “The senator [Lieberman] and I are both committed to Israel‘s well-being,” Lamont remarked recently during an appearance on the Colbert Report. He then criticized Lieberman for supporting the occupation in Iraq to the detriment of focusing on Iran: “A bolder Iran makes Israel even more vulnerable.” 

Nichols sees in the Lieberman-Lamont race a “signal that Democrats want their party to start making a serious appeal to the great majority of voters who want out of Iraq.” This may be true, but there are also leaders in the party that believe, along with Lieberman, that this is an irresponsible strategy that threatens to make the Democrats appear weak on “security” issues. Moreover, it ignores the fact that there have already been plenty of “signals” that the Democrats have ignored. This cannot be explained by incompetence and stupidity of individual candidates. Most of the leading Democrats are not fools. They are very good at what they do. Rather, it is a testament to the strength of the commitment of the Democratic Party to its corporate base.

While Republicans continue to raise more money than Democrats, the gap is much narrower this year as big money and big business decides to hedge its bets. According to Brody Mullins, writing in the Wall Street Journal Online:  

The shift includes backers of the Republican Party in the insurance, pharmaceuticals and tobacco industries, such as American International Group, Wyeth, and Reynolds American, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, a nonpartisan tracker of campaign contributions.

Most companies say they give political donations to candidates who support their businesses, regardless of party affiliation. But corporations also tend to channel funds to politicians they think will hold power. So any shift in corporate campaign giving toward Democrats could signal that businesses believe Democrats will have more sway in Washington after the 2006 midterm elections or the 2008 presidential contest.

This only goes to show that while masquerading as the “party of the people,” the Democrats stand for “Plan B,” that is, Corporate America’s alternative when their preferred Republicans can’t sell their program any longer.

The chief concern of the Democrats at this juncture is to present themselves to the ruling class as the party that is the more effective and responsible governing party, a party that can restore confidence in the political system and extricate the U.S. from its troubles in Iraq. But the U.S. ruling class will suffer a terrible blow to its credibility as a world power if it withdraws from Iraq now. The contradiction that the Democrats face is that they stand the best chance of winning elections if they criticize the war, yet as a party they are committed to winning in Iraq, not losing.



In response to a bill that Republicans rammed through the House of Representatives declaring twelve million undocumented immigrants felons, millions of immigrant workers and their supporters participated in a one-day strike and the largest mass marches in American history on May 1. A Pew Research Center report confirmed that 63 percent of Latinos saw May 1 as the beginning of a mass social movement to win their rights. This mobilization shattered ten years of Republican efforts to woo a section of Latino voters to their side, with Pew reporting that the percentage of Latinos who thought the Republicans had the best views on immigration falling form 25 percent in March of 2004 to 16 percent in June of 2006.

The Democrats were presented with another opportunity to ride the wave of popular anger against the Republicans. President Bush went on national TV just days before May 1 to call for troops on the U.S.-Mexico border, a new indentured servant (guest-worker) program, and the deportation of millions of people according to a complicated formula of how long they have worked in the United States. His proposal was sharply at odds with the demands for immediate legalization put forward by the huge movement. His own party’s discipline collapsed as arch-right-wingers denounced him for selling out (because he didn’t want to deport everyone). House Republicans threatened to rebel and only twenty-three of fifty-five Republican Senators backed his proposal.

Faced with this opportunity to stand up for civil rights and usher in a new mass phase of the labor movement, the Democrats rushed to defend President Bush from his own party. Instead of voting for legalization for all, Senate Democrats voted on May 25 to back Bush’s anti-immigrant legislation by 38 to 4 (with independent Bernie Sanders adding his vote for Bush), giving Bush what he needed when he couldn’t get it from his own party.

Democrats portrayed Bush’s immigration bill as a “compromise.” This was not a compromise with the demands of the mass movement, but rather a compromise with the demands of the ultra-right wing of Bush’s own party. And it just so happened that the compromise was everything that the Chamber of Commerce wanted: militarization of the border, “guest workers,” and an increase of the repressive laws against undocumented workers, making it ever harder for them to join unions.

The Democrats’ eagerness for draconian anti-immigrant legislation is not limited to the federal level. In mid-July, Colorado‘s Democratic-controlled state legislature passed eleven anti-immigrant measures that would deny most non-emergency state benefits to undocumented workers eighteen years and older, forcing people applying for benefits to first prove their legal residency. Boasting that the Democratic Party is “tough on immigration,” Colorado General Assembly speaker Andrew Romanoff praised the measures as “effective, enforceable, and practical.”

These betrayals have not gone unnoticed by immigrants. The Pew report notes that while support for the Republicans collapsed, there was no commensurate rise in support for the Democrats. In fact, Latinos’ rating of the Democrats’ immigration policies fell from 39 percent to 35 percent, while the number of Latinos who believe that neither party has good immigration policies rose from 7 percent to 25 percent.

So-called comprehensive immigration legislation remains stalled as the House Republicans insist on even more draconian measures and refuse to negotiate with Bush and Senate Democrats. However, this has not stopped Senate Democrats from mending fences with their Republican colleagues by voting 94 to 3 on August 2 to spend $1.83 billion to build a new 400-mile, triple-layer fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. This wall will increase the number of immigrants who die in the desert trying to cross in the coming years. Such is the Democrats’ response to May 1. The Democrats, in attempting to appear tough on “defending our borders,” are not only acting against the interests of immigrant workers in this country, but are, every bit as much as the Republican party, making immigrant bashing respectable, and helping to bring the most fringe extreme Right anti-immigrant forces into the mainstream.


Hoping to win despite themselves

The Democrats’ strategy seems to be: keep quiet, take pot shots at Bush from the left (and from the right, for example, on Iran, or on the Dubai port issue), and hope that the tide of anger against six years of war will lift them into the majority. Although crass and unprincipled, they may well be right. The question readers of this magazine have to pose to our friends and allies is: Should we hitch our wagon to this donkey?

The gap between the aspirations of the Democratic base and the timidity of the party’s leadership leaves open a space for organizations that announce their intention of “taking back” the Democratic Party. The latest of these efforts comes from the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), a liberal organization formed in 2004 from the remnants of Dennis Kucinich’s failed run for the presidency. While the activists involved in PDA are sincere, the corporate forces that really control the Democrats will not allow liberal activists to “take over” their political instrument. It is worth keeping in mind that Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition of the 1980s lost the power struggle to Clinton‘s DLC and is today virtually non-existent. And in contrast to the PDA, a vehicle of a small number of Democratic activists and a handful of liberal politicians, Jackson could claim to speak for 21 percent of Democrats whose votes he won in 1988 presidential primaries.

Instead, these challenges from the Left usually end up “fighting the good fight” and throwing their supporters to more right-wing Democrats who oppose most positions the challengers support. Kucinich’s role during the 2004 presidential election, by his own admission, was not so much to transform the party as to bring disgruntled progressives back into the party fold, and when the time came, to turn those votes over to Kerry. “What I’m trying to do is to go back to the big tent so that everyone who felt alienated could come back through my candidacy,” he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2003. At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Kucinich explained that his speech there was designed to reach out “to those Democrats who may not have supported John Kerry during the primaries and caucuses. My job in this election is to bring them in, and I will do that.” And he did.

In 2004, the antiwar movement demobilized and threw its support behind John Kerry, even though he promised to send more troops to Iraq. In 2006, the leadership of the largest antiwar coalition, United for Peace and Justice, is urging, in place of mass mobilizations, a “legislative” strategy to oust prowar politicians. The tragedy of this 2004-all-over-again is that it also requires muffling the antiwar movement’s support for Lebanon and Palestine against the Israeli onslaught, as no Democratic politician will countenance support from anti-Zionist organizations or movements.

However, the rot is deeper than simply a “tactical” decision by antiwar, labor, women’s rights, and civil rights leaderships to support Democrats in these elections. Since the Second World War, the main organizations of the liberal Left have embraced the Democrats and fought aggressively against any attempt to break movements free from their political domination or to organize left-wing electoral alternatives. Now the chickens are coming home to roost.

Now that the Democrats are proudly displaying their true pro-corporate, prowar colors, the liberal Left organizations have almost nothing left with which to defend themselves. So, for instance, when Senator Feinstein destroyed any serious attempt to filibuster John Roberts or Samuel Alito for Supreme Court nomination, all that the National Organization for Women and NARAL Pro-Choice America could do was send out a few e-mail alerts. There were no marches, no sit-ins-no real effort to defend abortion rights.

The American Left faces a much more difficult task than simply turning existing organizations against allegiance to the Democrats. By and large, the American Left must build from scratch, or at least from a historically weak starting point, the very organizations in which this debate can be thrashed out. There is no point in pretending this will be easy. But it must be done.



Todd Chretien is the 2006 Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate in California.

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