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Union workers demonstrate against a free trade agreement between Peru and the United States in front of the International Labor Organization's headquarters in Lima on Aug. 7.

The Democrats’ Path to Victory

The public demand for progressive politics is growing stronger

BY David Moberg

Voters are likely to choose the next president primarily on economic issues, especially if the financial crises deepen. But they will also decide the election based on concerns about the war in Iraq and, more broadly, America’s place in the world.

On both counts–the pocketbook and the globe–Democrats hold an advantage. But to retain that advantage, Democrats will need to redefine the terms of debate on America’s global role.

That’s happening in small, if inadequate, ways on both the war in Iraq and trade issues. The danger is that the Democrats will defensively hedge against the inevitable Republican attack machine on foreign policy and pander to their newly generous corporate financial backers on trade. They would then fail to connect with voters’ deep sense of dissatisfaction, not just with Bush, but with longer-term trends in American foreign policy.

Most Americans don’t think the administration’s global and domestic policies are working. “Democrats have not yet found their voice as agents of change, except perhaps on Iraq,” write Democracy Corps political strategists Stan Greenberg, Al Quinlan and James Carville. “If 2008 is to bring a tidal wave, Democrats and progressives must become more fully the voice of what is wrong with these times. It is not enough to be anti-Iraq and anti-Bush.”

Democracy Corps polling supports this populist reading of the electorate. Given a list of phrases that reflect both conservative and progressive explanations, the top two choices among people who think the country is off course were “big businesses get whatever they want in Washington” (40 percent) and “leaders have forgotten the middle class” (38 percent).

But Democracy Corps also reports that the populist inclinations of Democrats and independents diverge, giving Republicans a political wedge opportunity. Democratic voters were most concerned about Iraq spending, healthcare inaction, and job loss to China and India. Independents cared most about unprotected borders, oil dependence and job loss. Thus, immigration emerges as a potential political problem for Democratic candidates, even though most Americans reject draconian crackdowns on immigrants.

Current debates about Iraq and globalization–in Congress and among the presidential candidates–show that Democrats have failed to take advantage of this progressive shift in public opinion.

Iraq–now spilling over to encompass Iran–remains by far the most important global issue for voters. Roughly two out of every three Americans oppose the war in Iraq, and three out of five want the troops out within a year, according to CNN/Opinion Research. What’s more, a solid majority wants out even if the military has not restored order, according to a September Washington Post/ABC polls.

People now trust Democrats more than Republicans on the war, but 55 percent still said that congressional Democrats had not gone far enough in opposing it, according to the same poll.

In the presidential race, the top three Democrats–Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and former Sen. John Edwards–have all committed to starting the withdrawal of troops, saying they would leave residual forces in Iraq and the surrounding area, possibly through the end of their first term. Edwards argues that, unlike Clinton, he would end combat operations within a year, and Obama insists he would leave a smaller, less ambitious residual force than Clinton. But New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has made a bid for anti-war voters, calling for prompt and complete withdrawal (as has long-time war opponent Rep. Dennis Kucinich).

Clinton’s opponents have criticized her vote for the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which declares Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group and sets the stage for Bush to attack Iran. In response, Clinton said she did not support a “rush to war,” but did not rule out an attack on Iran.

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Over the past five years, the public has steadily opposed the reliance on U.S. military strength over multilateral diplomacy for security. Three-fourths of Americans favor international cooperation over either withdrawing from international affairs or being the top world leader or dominant power, according to the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy (PIPA). And nearly as many think that unilateral action against terrorism just makes the United States a bigger terrorist target. According to PIPA’s research, Americans overwhelmingly think that goodwill of other countries toward the United States is important but that the world views the country negatively because it dislikes American policies–not American values.

Republicans consistently beat Democrats in the polls on who would ensure a strong military and, by declining margins, on who can best protect national security or fight terrorists. After all, Republicans are adept at creating a culture of fear about foreign threats. And the military-industrial complex continues to exercise tremendous influence.

“I can’t imagine any president of either party standing up to the extreme powerful interests of the Pentagon and CIA in any effective way,” says Chalmers Johnson, author of Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic.

But on fundamental issues, Americans say they want a radically different foreign policy. Democrats need to emphasize that abandoning militarily aggressive policies and working cooperatively with other nations will make Americans more secure.

Granted, as a woman, Hillary Clinton faces biased questions about whether she can be a forceful leader. But it’s time to make the case that a president can be tough without being belligerent and stupid. Trying to distinguish themselves from both Bush and Clinton, Obama and Edwards argue for diplomatic talks with Iran, an offer of incentives as well as economic sanctions, and less aggressiveness (ruling out ambitions for “regime change,” according to Obama, or “preventive war,” according to Edwards).

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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

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