Shortly after his reelection, George Bush bragged that he had bags full of political capital for his second term. But Bush both miscounted the political coins in his pocket and blew his wad on some bad gambles, such as the war in Iraq and Social Security privatization. Then he lost more with the bad luck, largely of his own making, of a botched response to Hurricane Katrina.
By late November [FC], he was less popular than Clinton, Reagan or Eisenhower was at any point in their second terms, with his approval ratings down in the mid-30 percents. On the two leading issues for voters – the war in Iraq and the economy – his ratings were even worse.
And despite hard-core loyalty from the Republican base, there are signs of disaffection from both moderates and the party’s far right, including anti-government budget-cutters and anti-immigrant militants. Cracks have even emerged in the previously impregnable Republican Congressional political machine over both scandals and strategy. “The hopeful sign is that on all kinds of fronts where Republicans hoped to be united and victorious, they’re now defensive and disunited,” says Roger Hickey, co-director of the progressive advocacy group Campaign for America’s Future (CAF).
Bush’s annus horribilus was partly the result of fundamentally flawed policies playing themselves out. It also reflected the breakdown of a duplicitous strategy to push through policies that a majority of Americans never supported and often misunderstood, as political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson argue in their recent book, Off Center. But it also resulted from the grassroots pressure of progressives and – when they finally sensed Bush’s weakness – some better-late-than-never political discipline from Democrats.
There were two turning points. First, his disastrous handling of Hurricane Katrina reinforced a view of Bush as out of touch with ordinary people and undermined his claim to elementary competence. With American poverty and governmental inadequacy so flagrantly on display, Republicans had to indefinitely postpone the vote on one of their favorite causes – permanent repeal of the estate tax.
Then, the 2,000th death of American soldiers in Iraq crystallized Americans’ frustration with a war that a growing majority thinks should not have been fought – and that Bush misled them into supporting. Bush is losing support on the war not only from the left and center – most notably, in the resounding call for withdrawal from traditionally hawkish Rep. John Murtha (D‑Pa.) – but also from his right. Two-thirds of self-described conservative Republicans told Washington Post pollsters they had doubts about the war.
Equally important to Bush’s collapse was the defeat in the public arena – without a vote even being taken – of his primary domestic initiative: privatization of Social Security. The more Bush talked about it, the less support it got. But that never would have happened without a sustained and disciplined grassroots campaign led by Americans United to Protect Social Security, consisting of unions, especially AFSCME (public employees), CAF and USAction (a coalition of statewide citizen groups). In Bush’s first week on the hustings for privatization, they directly challenged him in Fargo, Billings, Omaha, Little Rock and Tampa, all cities in red states where he had hoped to pressure Democratic legislators to back his plan. “These are not places of progressive strength,” says USAction director Jeff Blum, “but they became places where people on our side were looking to fight back. We gave them a message.”
With the floodgates open, more discontent poured out. Democrats won governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia, making significant gains in exurbs where Republicans thought they ruled. Older Americans on Medicare were infuriated with the complex Medicare prescription plan, a giveaway to the drug and insurance industries that Republicans hoped would win them seniors’ votes. And the blow-up over Harriet Miers’ Supreme Court nomination underscored the Bush administration’s weakness for incompetent cronies. The right won the Republicans’ internal fight over Miers with the subsequent nomination of Samuel Alito, but with Bush weakened and Alito’s deeply conservative views becoming public, Democratic senators may be emboldened to make a fight over his nomination.
The growing scandals from the White House to Congress are most significant as indicators of how lawlessly the right wing has fought for power. The outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame was at its heart an attempt to hide the false rationales proffered for invading Iraq. The pending trial of (now former) house majority leader Tom DeLay for money-laundering grew out of his strategy to use corporate money in a scheme to redistrict the state and eliminate five Democratic congressmen – even though Bush Justice Department experts unanimously concluded that the plan violated the Voting Rights Act.
Bad as they are, the scandals involving superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, or Rep. Duke Cunningham – who pleaded guilty and resigned from Congress – are more conventional, if grandly greedy, abuses of influence. The widespread involvement of industry lobbyists in writing Republican legislation, like the energy or bankruptcy bills, is far more troublesome.
Politically, the scandals may make some seemingly secure races more competitive. For example, shortly after Thanksgiving, Ohio Rep. Bob Ney (R‑Ohio) was confronted by four ads placed by CAF in the Columbus Dispatch, linking him to Abramoff, DeLay and others in the casino money-for-influence scandal. Such reminders may make Ney’s re-election more difficult.
Republicans recognize that vulnerability: Party leaders in the House allowed Ney to be one of 14 Republicans to vote in November against the House Republican budget cuts in Medicaid, student loans and child support enforcement in their budget reconciliation bill. But his Cleveland-area colleague, Steve LaTourette, who had told lobbyists that he would vote against the “lousy” legislation, was pressured into helping to pass the bill by two votes. His constituents were snowed in that day, he explained, so they wouldn’t notice his vote.
Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, under investigation for suspicious stock trading, should be especially vulnerable to corruption charges, since they claim to be the party of values, religion and morality. But the scandals aren’t at the top of voters’ reasons for condemning Republicans. According to a late November Democracy Corps poll, nationally, Americans favor a generic Democratic Congressman over a generic Republican by a 47 to 41 margin, more because of the substance of Republican policies than their “culture of corruption.”
Forcing unpopular policies
For example, the cuts in food stamps, Medicaid and student loans in the $50 billion House budget reconciliation bill were sold as offsetting the cost of Katrina relief. In reality, though, they were needed to pay for part of a planned $70 billion tax cut – much of it future capital gains and dividend cuts that benefit the rich. Republicans separated the two bills – and even deferred voting on the House tax cuts right after passing their reconciliation bill – to avoid the link. But the Emergency Campaign for American Priorities (ECAP), largely a reincarnation of the coalition that fought Social Security privatization, connected the two bills. According to Hart Research polling, two-thirds of voters thought the package of tax and budget cuts was a bad idea, including 55 percent of white evangelicals.
“We’ve stolen their moral thunder,” says Alan Charney, political director of USAction and ECAP coordinating committee chair. “We’re talking in very moral terms, and it has resonated: Don’t cut American priorities to pay for tax cuts for the rich.”
The House reconciliation bill narrowly passed, with united Democratic opposition and splintered Republican support, but the prospects looked bad for a compromise that would keep Republicans together on the much different Senate bill – especially as Republicans continue to push policies that are unpopular with most Americans, and don’t even work to boot.
Take the economy, for example. More than three-fifths of those polled told Gallup in mid-November that economic conditions were only fair or poor, and nearly the same percentage thought they were getting worse. They’re largely right: The recovery has been anemic compared to past business cycles; real income is down for most workers. And Bush’s tax and budget policies, along with issues he champions, such as weaker unions and corporate globalization, play a major role in fostering the growing inequality.
As Hacker and Pierson detail so well, Republicans have constructed a juggernaut designed to deliver such unpopular programs but protect themselves politically. But while they describe the political mechanics of class warfare, they present the problem as the “center” having lost its power. Needed electoral reforms, however, can’t happen until progressives gain power.
Democrats should note that the primary prescription for “bootstrapping” victory over Republican distortions of the electoral system is a stronger labor movement. Indeed, the fundamental problem, more than a weakened center, is that the Democrats have not devised a political response to the class warfare Republicans wage on behalf of the rich and the corporations. It is not an impossible task: On most counts, large majorities of Americans would be with them, if, like Dorothy’s companions on the road to Oz, they only had enough courage, heart and brains.
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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.