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Going into the midterm congressional elections, Republicans held all the power in Washington. But after the drubbing they got on November 7, only the White House remained firmly in their grasp.
The Republicans’ 30-seat majority in the House of Representatives was turned around, into a Democratic majority of nearly 30 seats. Even more remarkable was the Democrats’ near-total sweep of competitive Senate races, giving them a majority if razor-thin leads in Virginia and Montana held up through the final count and likely recounts. The Democrats also won enough governorships to take a majority of state mansions as well.
For millions of people who have opposed George Bush and his right-wing agenda for six long years, this election is a long-awaited cause for celebration. It represents a rejection of one-party Republican rule and the GOP program on a range of issues–corporate greed, political corruption, Religious Right fanaticism, and, looming above them all, the disastrous U.S. occupation of Iraq.
This is why the 2006 vote took on much greater importance than most midterm elections. A Gallup poll in the lead-up to the vote found that half of respondents were paying “quite a lot” of attention to the elections, the highest since 1994 when the Republicans took control of Congress in the so-called “Republican Revolution.” Nearly two-thirds of people surveyed in Election Day exit polls said they voted on the basis of national issues, not local ones.
On those issues, the tide has turned dramatically against the Republicans. A USA Today poll survey found that six in 10 Americans were dissatisfied with “the way things are going in the country.”
Exit polls showed almost the same proportion opposing the Iraq war, with the overwhelming majority of them voting Democrat. A succession of scandals culminating in the Mark Foley congressional page scandal took another leg out from under the Republicans–exposing the hypocrisy of party leaders who covered up for one of their own.
The right did have some successes pushing through ballot measures on hot-button issues such as banning same-sex marriage, making English the official language of Arizona and supporting the death penalty in Wisconsin–even in states where the Republicans suffered significant losses. As in 2004, these referendums passed not because masses of people embrace the Religious Right, but because Democrats ducked every opportunity to make the case against them–leaving the debate over them one-sided in favor of the right.
By contrast, the best news of the night on ballot measures–the sound victory for a South Dakota referendum to overturn a state law banning virtually all abortions–was the result of a grassroots effort by pro-choice supporters to win opinion to their side.
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Already on Election Night, the professional pundits were spinning the results into a new conventional wisdom that Democrats won because they ran more conservative candidates.
In Indiana, for example, Brad Ellsworth, the Democrat who beat Rep. John Hostettler, brags about the “A” rating he received from the National Rifle Association. In North Carolina, Heath Shuler, who trumpets his evangelical Christianity and opposition to abortion rights, defeated incumbent Republican Charles Taylor.
But the idea that Democrats won because they were more conservative is as wrong-headed as the idea that the election represented no change at all.
The fact about the U.S. two-party system is that it normally presents voters with two choices–the status quo or “throwing the bums out.” The Democrats became the beneficiaries of a mix of sentiments, most of them against Bush and the war, without doing much at all to present an alternative.
But in an election like this one, that hardly mattered. According to ABC News exit polls, 62 percent of Rhode Islanders said they supported the job that incumbent Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a moderate Republican, was doing. Yet Rhode Islanders voted Chafee out of office anyway–as a clear protest against Bush and the Republicans.
The Democrats did their very best to win this election without proposing any concrete alternatives on the Iraq occupation or other major issues. But among those who voted against the Republicans by voting for the Democrats, there is nevertheless an expectation that a Democratic Congress will make some difference.
According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, for example, nearly three-quarters of respondents say they expected U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Iraq more quickly under a Democratic-led Congress. The poll also showed that people expect a Democratic Congress to try to deliver a minimum wage, lower health care and prescription drug costs, and an improved economy.
But these expectations won’t come close to being met if Democrats are left to themselves. As left-wing writer Joshua Frank pointed out on the CounterPunch Web site, two-thirds of Democrats in tight House races oppose even setting a timetable for troop withdrawal–in other words, “exactly the same position on the war as our liar-in-chief, George W. Bush,” Frank wrote.
Even setting aside these party conservatives, though, the Democrats share much more in common with the Republicans than they differ on. As a party, the Democrats are the U.S. ruling establishment’s B-team, coming off the bench to save the game after the A-team Republicans have nearly blown it.
Thus, on Iraq, the Democrats–when they say anything concrete at all–propose a repackaged occupation in Iraq, not an end to it.
The Democrats are not defining themselves as opposed to the Republicans, but rather as the not-Republicans–and that is a crucial difference. The party leadership wants to become the new “center” in American politics, uniting sensible liberals–so long as they’ve broken with inconvenient illusions that Democrats should oppose war or increase social spending or roll back tax break giveaways to the rich–with conservatives who were at home in the Republican Party until the right-wing kooks took over.
In an interview with Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, Hillary Clinton used all the catchphrases we can expect to hear from Democrats for the next two years. “Americans are primarily pragmatic,” she said. “We are both conservative and progressive. In the pragmatic center, you get people together; you listen, you learn; you don’t draw lines in the sand.”
Expect the Democrats to push for measures they know Republicans will be hard-pressed to oppose, like a long-delayed increase in the minimum wage–or, as House Majority Leader-to-be Nancy Pelosi never tires of repeating, implementing the national security recommendations of the commission that investigated the September 11 attacks.
But on the issue of the war, reports the Wall Street Journal, Pelosi “is privately trying to insist that liberals tamp down expectations of getting out of Iraq now. Democratic allies in the House say she wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize the new recruits’ electoral future, and by extension Democrats’ newfound power.”
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The Democrats won’t pose a real alternative to the Republicans–unless they face pressure from below. But the demise of Republican one-party rule in the 2006 election creates the potential for this pressure to build.
The right’s stranglehold on politics has been loosened, opening up new space in the mainstream debate that can embolden people in their growing questioning of U.S. government policies overseas and at home.
On Iraq, Republicans and Democrats alike have vowed to seek a “new direction”–in other words, a Plan B that will repackage the occupation. But even a debate over pro-imperialist alternatives for Iraq will open splits at the top that can cast further doubt on the legitimacy of the occupation and give confidence to activists to press ahead with their ideas and activism.
Already, the movement of active-duty GIs and antiwar veterans has taken some new steps forward–these can serve to inspire a revitalization of the wider antiwar movement.
What’s more, the Democrats’ newfound power in Congress will force them to define their proposals more clearly–exposing them in the eyes of people who believe they represent a real alternative to the Republicans.
The key in all this will be to take advantage of every opportunity opened up by the crushing election rejection of the Republicans to rebuild the struggles against war and for justice and democracy.